After last week's announcement that the Bowater Mersey paper mill in Brooklyn was shutting down for good we are left with two major questions: was the NDP government right to loan the mill's owners, Resolute Forest Products, a bailout package of $26.5 million for upgrades and training; and more importantly, what happens now for Queen's county and the rest of Nova Scotia?
Nova Scotia's NDP government was not wrong for wanting to support the mill. While I can't argue with the point that ensuring a future for the province's rural economies means diversifying past one-industry towns, the Bowater mill was far too important to the local economy to simply let it die without something else to take its place.
When we have a healthy and diverse rural economy with a well-trained workforce that can handle these kinds of shutdowns without too much shock, then we can talk about letting the dinosaurs go extinct. Until then, Nova Scotia may have to play the role of a economic Jurassic Park for a time.
Despite some of the more histrionic statements from the online and on-air commentary regarding the closure, the loans given to Resolute have not and will not ruin the province's fortunes. For one, $25 million that was meant to be spent on upgrades to keep the mill operational and efficient have been returned to the province.
(That Resolute actually only spent $600,000 over the six mouths since the deal was reached makes me wonder just how serious they were about keeping the mill running in the first place, but that's another topic for another day.)
Then there is the $24 million land purchase the province made as part of its deal with Bowater. I find it odd that Liberal leader Stephen MacNeil would call the purchase "a costly mistake," not only because his party voted for the deal, but because that land is now an asset Nova Scotia can use towards conservation and (possibly) sustainable forestry development in the future.
I say sustainable because while Bowater's closure is a symptom of a declining pulp and paper industry in North America, the forestry sector is by no means dead. People still need paper and wood products, and the demand for wood pellets is increasing around the world. While biomass energy sources such as wood pellets have plenty of problems of their own, I would argue that they at least have the potential to be one of many alternatives to fossil fuels.
The loss of one of its largest customers might prompt Nova Scotia Power Inc. to seek another rate increase, but it's also possible that the mill's own power generation facilities could be used as a new biomass plant, thus lessening Nova Scotia's dependence on expensive coal.
These and other issues are all things that the transition council being put in place by the NDP government will have to consider. Diversifying the economy of the South Shore and rural Nova Scotia in general is without a doubt essential to proving long-term prosperity, but without a plan, "diversifying" is just one of those annoying buzz words people use when they don't actually have anything to say. The re-development of rural Nova Scotia should draw inspiration from the Antigonish Movement and focus on building up locally and co-operatively owned businesses that serve the interests of the communities in which they operate.
While the closure of the Bowater mill is disheartening, this should be seen as an opportunity to start re-building rural Nova Scotia into a more prosperous and equal economy. The fact that this process will, with little doubt, take years if not more should not discourage us from acting now.
The iron is hot.