Suzanne Rent continues her series of profiles of women over 50 who, in their own often quiet ways, make significant contributions to our society outside of the corporate world.
There’s one word that comes to Marie Lumsden’s mind when she thinks about the spaceport Maritime Launch Services (MLS) is proposing for her hometown of Canso: invasion.
“The fear is that we will be displaced,” Lumsden said. “This is a fishing community and people hunt and go into the woods. We’re outdoorsy people. This whole natural environment is our heritage. Invasion. I can’t explain it any other way.”
Lumsden is a member of Action Against Canso Spaceport (AACS), a citizen group formed in 2019 to fight MLS’s plans to build a spaceport in Canso to shoot rockets into space.
Lumsden has lots of words to describe the spaceport project: ridiculous, foolish, preposterous, outrageous.
“I think this has been an incredible manipulation of some rural people who are being fooled into thinking that this is some kind of panacea to save the community, which I don’t think needs saving anyway,” she said.
“It’s rural people being treated like garbage. Put it in the middle of Point Pleasant Park and see how people feel.”
Saying no to the spaceport
Lumsden lives on a road with a view of Canso Harbour from her front door.
On homes and fences along that same road are signs that say “We Say No to the Canso Spaceport.” Lumsden’s house is on a few acres of land with a sloping backyard. Looking out from the deck on the back of her house, you can see wind turbines and the spot where the launch pad will be located. That site is just 2.9 kilometres from her house. She said she started hearing the work trucks making their way back into the woods there this past fall.
The launch pad site, Lumsden said, is “smackdab in the middle” of three communities people know as Canso: Canso proper, Hazel Hill, and Little Dover. The site is located on a wetland and along a path for migratory birds. Half a kilometre away is Andrew Island Provincial Park, a protected reserve. And it’s all surrounded by fishing grounds.
Lumsden said she didn’t pay much attention to the project at first.
Back in 2018, then Environment Minister Margaret Miller didn’t approve MLS’s plans. As Joan Baxter reported in 2019, Miller demanded MLS provide a detailed Focus Report because the original documents registered with the province had “insufficient information.”
In 2019, MLS did send in that report, which contained details about the Ukrainian Cyclone 4M rocket that would be propelled by chemicals such as hydrazine. The report also detailed what would happen in an accident.
Later in the year, there was a new environment minister, Gordon Wilson, who approved MLS’s proposal. That’s when Lumsden and many others took notice.
“It wasn’t until this conditional approval on the fourth of June 2019 and I said, ‘Oh, my god, you have got to be kidding me.’ I couldn’t believe it,” Lumsden said. “The faith I had in our democratic institutions before, that is no longer. Before I thought there’s no way our government is going to allow this.”
One day, she and a friend decided to form a group that would become Action Against Canso Spaceport. In August 2019, they hosted a panel so people could express their concerns. The group has been busy ever since, researching MLS, learning about rocket facilities elsewhere that didn’t work out, hosting meetings in Canso, making signs, filing for freedom of information requests from the province.
“I think it’s really the only way to find out what’s happening,” she said.
‘Culture of silence’
While there’s strong opposition to the project, Lumsden says there’s also a “culture of silence.” The project is causing friction among families and friends. She said AACS has support from people who will never attach their names to it.
“I don’t know if people here have been through so much and mistreated, and we have been mistreated terribly over the years,” Lumsden said. “People depend on each other so much in this community, and there’s so much love in this community, and people choose to be silent, and hope it will all work out.”
The stress of it all lives in Lumsden’s home, too. She and others spend hours on the work of AACS. She doesn’t buy any of the arguments in support of the spaceport: that it will create jobs, promote tourism in the community, or that it’s safe.
“The idea this will employ a whole bunch of people is just ridiculous. Once these things are set up, this little crew comes in, they launch the thing and leave. Would you buy a house two or three kilometres from a launch facility? Nobody would.”
Lumsden was born and grew up in Canso but left for Halifax when she was younger. She eventually returned with a young daughter. Several years ago, she bought her parents’ home. She and her partner Curtis Munroe now share the house with her parents, Emily and Buzz Lumsden.
Lumsden, now 52, said there were a couple of things that struck her when she returned home. First, there was the spring peepers she heard from her window at night, a sound she said was “like I was at camp all the time.”
But she also noticed how much volunteerism there was in the community, too.
“Part of it, I think, is that we’ve been kind of neglected over time and we had no choice to do those things for ourselves,” she said.
She got into that volunteerism young, though. Her parents were volunteers, too, and took Lumsden and her siblings along during the volunteer work they did.
“I was raised in a family where civic duty is important and just part of what you do,” Lumsden
‘It’s a beautiful place’
Still, Lumsden said she’d rather being doing something else than fighting a company looking to shoot off rockets from her town. She already has something on the go.
A few years ago, Lumsden started selling bundles of fresh-cut flowers she grows herself. It’s honest work, she said, and even talking about flowers changes her mood instantly.
“It’s not something that will pay all my bills for now. It’s slow and gradual and I really enjoy it,” she said.
Over the last few years, she’s grown flowers in gardens on the few acres of her property. There are dahlias, peonies, tulips, daffodils, cosmos, sunflowers, and bachelor buttons. Each year, she plants a new variety. Not all of them will take, though. Canso juts out into the ocean, so spring arrives later, but so does winter.
“Some things do well, and some things don’t because of where we live,” Lumsden said.
There are some other things Lumsden said could work in Canso, certainly much better than spaceports.
Canso is an isolated community and Lumsden said many people still don’t know where it is. They think Canso is in Cape Breton, she said. But the community is close to the island from the water, just nine miles from Isle Madame by boat. Lumsden said there could easily be a scenic loop created. Just put in a tour boat that would take visitors between Canso and Cape Breton and they could drive the rest through Cape Breton and Guysborough County.
And the Stan Rogers Folk Festival that brings in hundreds of people each summer, of course. But Lumsden said Canso could additionally promote its natural environment and beauty with retreats for artists or facilities for scientists or birders to visit.
There’s also a lot of history in Canso, too. Grassy Island Fort National Historic Site is just a short boat ride off the coast of town, and Lumsden said there are ways to preserve and promote the community’s stories.
“There are things you can do to monopolize on what’s beautiful here instead of destroying it for a private company,” she said.
And she said the fisheries are healthy now and people are making money.
“I think it’s a great time to put a launch facility in there, drop some poison into the ocean. To me it’s just an insult.”
“It’s a beautiful place and there are people who have come here who want to live here because it’s peaceful, because it’s quiet, because there are foxes running through your backyard, because the air is clean. They want to be in a rural community. There’s nothing wrong with living in a rural community. Why it has to be turned into an industrial park, I have no idea. But there are other things you can do… there are a million beautiful things you can do with this community.”
“But don’t build something that’s going to poison the atmosphere and terrify everybody.”
‘Her passion is Canso’
Lumsden previously worked with the Eastern Communities Youth Association, which folded in 2019. She now works as a caregiver for a couple of families. She said that work keeps her mind occupied and not thinking about rockets.
“I get to go to their homes and be a nice person,” she said. “And it feels good. It’s someone I used to be. I feels so good to sit and talk with someone and meet them on their level, where they are. In that time, I have to focus on that person. It’s an opportunity to feel like I used to feel.”
Lumsden considers herself a reluctant activist. But if she never saw herself as an organizer, Curtis Munroe, her partner of five years, did. He’s seen her organize through other projects, including the Eastern Communities Youth Association, and other groups.
“Her passion is Canso and her mom and dad,” Munroe said. “And this piece of property. She doesn’t want to lose it all to something that … if it happens, which I don’t think it will.”
Lumsden said Munroe, who is from Little Dover, is a good man who is patient and kind and cooks for her. He also knows how to help her deal with the stress.
“I try to keep her calm and tell her it’s not going to happen. Not to worry,” says Munroe. “That’s easier said than done.”
Munroe said he’s not convinced the spaceport will ever happen because MLS “doesn’t have the rockets and doesn’t have the money.”
Still, Lumsden fights and said she feels like Canso has been “railroaded” by every level of government. She said when she now sees signs in communities in opposition of big projects, such as the golf course in Owls Head, she “gets it.”
“I completely get it.. I feel for every one of them. It would be wonderful if all of us could get together and go to the legislature and say, ‘This needs to stop.’ Do they not understand that people are marching and fighting and putting in petitions and talking to the media because something is wrong? They’re doing it because it’s wrong. They’re not doing it because they’re naysayers or they have a bad attitude. Or they’re emotional women or whatever crap people come up with. They’re doing it because the system is broken.”
She said Nova Scotia has some bright, “big-hearted” people and the province can do better than this spaceport. And she fights because “I really love this place, and I love the people.”
“My immediate hope is that this thing will end, that that piece of land will be protected … that there are some kind of laws to protect the environment, that the environment has rights, that we have rights to be safe in our own communities from this poison,” she said.
“I’d like to see us healed from this. “