“There is an irony here,” says Mi’kmaq historian Daniel Paul as he talks about rallies to stop Northern Pulp from pumping its treated effluent into the Northumberland Strait.
“If they all care so much now, why didn’t they come forward 50 years ago.”
A broad spectrum of fishermens’ groups, environmental activists and concerned citizens have joined together under the NOPIPE banner to force the federal government to step in and order a larger scientific review of the pulp mill’s plan. For many though, the only choice is to stop it.
But decades ago, there were only the voices of the First Nations community that could be heard in opposition.
Back in 1981 Chief Raymond Francis walked into Daniel Paul’s office and said he wanted to sue the province.
Francis was chief of the Pictou Landing First Nation that had watched the saltwater lagoon behind the community poisoned by the effluent piped into it from the kraft pulp mill at Abercrombie Point.
Paul was the district superintendent for the then Department of Indian and Northern Affairs.
“I told him you are going after the wrong people because the title of reserve lands is vested in the federal crown,” recalled Paul.
In effect, Paul told the chief to sue his own boss – the federal government.
Ultimately, along with a $35-million settlement the federal government accepted that it had failed in its fiduciary responsibility to protect the Pictou Landing First Nation from a broad based campaign by provincial and municipal officials to get it to accept the effluent from the kraft pulp mill built at Abercrombie Point.
As part of the discovery process the court case heard from the community elders who told of how they feared reprisals from the broader white community if they stood against a project that would bring jobs to Pictou County.
“Just imagine what the public reaction would have been against these already racially oppressed people if they had said no, thus preventing the establishment of an industry which had the potential to employ, either directly or indirectly, thousands of non-Indians,” wrote Paul in his history book We Were Not the Savages.
It wasn’t until the pipe carrying untreated effluent to Boat Harbour ruptured in June 2014 and the band blockaded the site that the provincial government was forced to negotiate a closure of the treatment site.
Now work was underway cleaning up the Boat Harbour treatment site, which is owned by the province and leased to the mill, in anticipation of the 2020 closure date enshrined in legislation as part of the deal that saw the band lift its blockade.
“Right smack in the middle of where we fish lobster,” said fisheries director Wayne Denny of where Northern Pulp’s new proposed pipe will ‘diffuse’ its treated effluent into the Northumberland Strait.
“They killed everything behind us and now they’re going to kill everything in front of us,” said Denny.
- Northern Pulp must find new route for treated effluent pipe
- Northumberland Strait fishermen not willing to gamble on pipe
- Northern Pulp employees putting their faith in science and company owners
- Pictou County residents and business owners share common concerns about proposed effluent pipe
The irony for Pictou Landing, which owns 22 lobster licences and 420,000 pounds of crab quota, is the deal that will see Boat Harbour remediated will now see the effluent treated on shore and pumped into the strait.
And there’s not a lot of trust for the promises from the mill that the new pipe won’t harm a fishery that directly employs 70 community members seasonally and brings in about $4 million in gross revenues.
Those numbers don’t include the six lobster licenses privately held by community members.
Denny doesn’t take reassurance from the requirement that Northern Pulp get an environmental assessment for the proposed replacement effluent treatment plant.
And Paul doesn’t expect him or anyone in Pictou Landing to have much trust in the processes established by the federal and provincial governments that are supposed to see science, rather than political pressure, be the primary arbiter of whether projects continue.
“They were told they were going to be able to use Boat Harbour for recreation and swimming and fresh water fishing before they started pumping that effluent in there 50 years ago,” said Paul.
“Now you’re back there telling these people ‘we’re going to pump the water out into the strait and there’s not going to be negative effects’. It’s rather hard to get people to believe you when they have been grossly and viciously lied to over and over.”
On Friday, July 6, the lion’s share of Pictou Landing’s fleet will be joining the flotilla in Pictou Harbour.
Many other residents plan on joining the land-based march.
Though his community fought largely alone for so long, Denny now welcomes the support of the broader non-aboriginal community.
“Now it’s going to affect them too,” said Denny.
“It’s everybody’s livelihood now.”