THE CHRONICLE HERALD — Down a long Colchester County dirt road, there’s a fifth-generation family home with a big softwood kitchen table.

In May, something rare happened at this table.

People listened to each other.

“Chief Andrea Paul came and sat at this table and asked us, ‘How will a mill closure affect you?’ And (she) gave us all a chance to talk,” said Julia McMillan.

“It impressed us so much that she came.”

After Paul had heard from Julia and her husband David, both forest technicians who rely on Northern Pulp, they, in turn, listened to what living beside the mill’s effluent for 52 years had meant for the Pictou Landing First Nation.

They spent an entire day talking about their lives, communities, and forestry practices between that kitchen table and a tour of some of the 400 hectares of woodland the McMillan family manages.

At day’s end, they didn’t agree on whether Northern Pulp should be granted an extension under the Boat Harbour Act to allow time for the mill to build a new effluent treatment facility.

And they didn’t agree on whether that proposed facility should be allowed to pump its treated effluent into the Northumberland Strait.

But they did share a bond of mutual respect.

“I think these conversations should have happened years ago,” Paul said this week.

“And not because of the situation that’s on the table now. The reality that we’re in today is unfair to everyone.”

It is a hard reality with looming deadlines.

Northern Pulp plans on submitting its focus report responses to the provincial Environment Department by month’s end. There will be a month for public comment on the studies comprising the focus report and then Environment Minister Gordon Wilson will have 25 days to decide whether to approve it.

If approved, the new facility could take 21 months to build.

The 2015 Boat Harbour Act demands the existing effluent treatment plant close by Jan. 31, 2020.

While a Department of Lands and Forestry spokeswoman refused to comment this week on a “hypothetical situation,” everyone else is talking.

And tensions are rising as a potential Northern Pulp shutdown draws near.

No Pipe signs dot lawns along the Northumberland Strait of a broad coalition for fishermen, First Nations and community groups who oppose Northern Pulp’s plan.

There are also Support Forestry Families signs in yards like the McMillans and Support Northern Pulp stickers on the tailgates of pickup trucks around Northern Nova Scotia.

Tales of threats and harassment have spread among those on both sides of the issue.

The sharp divisions are most evident on social media.

Facebook groups titled Clean up the Pictou County Pulp Mill and Support Northern Pulp Jobs and the Nova Scotia Economy host impassioned discussions of siloed opinions.

In this golden age of communication, we appear to understand each other less than ever.

“The great gift that social media promised was access to the conversation,” said Amy Thurlow, a communications professor at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax who studies social media effects on public discourse.

“In days gone by, the people who had access to important conversations were the people who could get there. Everyone else was left out. The idea was that now that we can get all the voices at the table, it will engage and democratize discourse.”

Nova Scotians are more connected than ever before, and as our province faces one of the most divisive decisions in recent memory, the most notable feature of the conversation is what’s lacking — respectful acknowledgement of the ground upon which both sides stand.

Thurlow isn’t surprised.

“What happened is that social media created these echo chambers, these bubbles around conversations,” she said.

“When people get there, they tend to only talk to people that think like they do and don’t cross boundaries.”

The algorithms that drive what shows up in our news feed actually promote this — they are designed to bring us posts that we want to see.

That keeps us looking at our screens.

Those algorithms also keep us from seeing opinions that we don’t like or thinking deeply about perspectives other than our own.

“Social media’s strength is its reach,” Thurlow said.

“What it doesn’t do well is depth. That’s what’s so critical in this situation. In a debate where people’s realities are so different and the stakes are so high, we can’t get a depth of conversation in the medium we use the most.”

When the McMillans invited Paul to their home and she agreed to come, both were using what Thurlow considers “the most effective form of engagement.”

They talked face to face.

Both represent groups that consider themselves to be unheard and misunderstood.

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