This story has been updated with a press release from the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaw Chiefs.
Citing the risk of fire, on the evening of Thursday, June 1, John Lohr, the Nova Scotia minister responsible for the Emergency Management Office, ordered the closing the aboiteau at the Windsor causeway.
Lohr’s order was in contradiction to a 2021 ministerial order of the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) to keep the aboiteau open so fish could travel up and down the Avon River, and thus in and out of the Minas Basin in the Bay of Fundy.
DFO re-issued the order every two weeks, and with the aboiteau open, the artificial Lake Pisiquid, on the upstream side of the causeway, emptied.
Lake Pisiquid was known as the site of the annual Windsor Pumpkin Regatta, and was popular with Windsor-area paddlers. Its emptying in 2021 after the aboiteau was opened deeply divided the community, with those who wanted the artificial lake to remain on one side, and those supporting free fish passage on the other.
Lohr was able to override the DFO order because the province had declared a state of emergency related to the wildfires across the province.
“At a time when wildfires across the province continue to spread out of control, we need to take every precaution to prevent further fires, protect communities and maximize the water supply resource available for our ongoing response,” said Lohr in a press release.
The closure of the aboiteau would “maximize the water supply available for wildfire suppression efforts,” said the release.
At 7:38am the next morning, Friday, June 2, Lohr texted fisherman Darren Porter: “Very late yesterday we had a request from Windsor NS fire dept for water resources in Lake Pisaquid. Acted on it immediately with EMO order last night.”
At about noon on June 2, the CBC published an article about Lohr’s order. “Lohr said his department received a request Thursday afternoon from the chief responsible for the Windsor Fire Department and South West Hants Fire and he made the decision to issue the order around 6 p.m.,” reported Michael Gorman.
But Jamie Juteau, the chief of the Windsor Fire Department, flatly rejects Lohr’s assertion.
“I did not make any request to Minister Lohr or his Department or anyone else for water resources in Lake Pisiquid or to ‘reinstate’ Lake Pisiquid,” wrote Juteau in an affidavit filed in Supreme Court on Monday. “Nor did anyone I am aware of with the Windsor Fire Department make such any such request.”
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More generally, Lake Pisiquid is not needed for firefighting purposes, said Brett Tentanish, a firefighter with 32 years experience in the Windsor area, in a separate affidavit:
I am a Captain with the Brooklyn Fire Department (Nova Scotia), and former Deputy Chief of this fire department. This fire department is located approximately 10 kilometres from the town of Windsor.
I have bene (sic) previously employed as a Wildland Firefighter with the Nova Scotia Department of Natural Resources.
I am a level 2 firefighter certified by the IFSAC (International Fire Service Accreditation Congress), and trained to the level of Crew Leader in wildland firefighting. I am also a graduate of the NS Community College Landscape and Horticulture Program.
I have worked on several large forest fires in Nova Scotia, including wildfires in Porters Lake, Cow Bay and, more recently (May 2023), on the Tantallon fire, the Farmers Fire, and the Barrington Lake Fire.
Based on my training and experience fighting wildfires, I know that West Hants has many water sources, both fresh and saltwater, that helicopters can pull water from to fire wildfires. Lake Pisiquid in Windsor is not required to fight wildfires in the area around Windsor. Based on my experience, Lake Pisiquid would never be used for fighting wildfire because other water sources are closer to the nearby forests where wildfire could occur.
Based on my knowledge of the wildfires in May 2023, obtained during the course of fighting several of them, no forests near Windsor were under threat of wildfire on June 1, 2023.
Porter, the fisherman, and his lawyer Jamie Simpson will appear in Supreme Court Thursday and ask for an emergency order from the court, staying Lohr’s order.
In the meantime, fish have been dying.
“Just seeing the gates being closed, knowing that we did this fight three years ago, for John Lohr to just put this emergency management act in place to overthrow the [DFO] ministerial order is absolutely disgusting,” Nikki-Marie Lenora-Faye Lloyd, from Annapolis Valley First Nation told the Halifax Examiner in a telephone interview. Lloyd has worked for the past three years with Porter and others on fish research in the area.
“Seeing the fish, like you could see thousands of the backs of fish,” continued Lloyd. “And they’re jumping, trying to get through the gate. And then when I was down on the river on Friday at low tide, I sat down there with the fish until the tidal bore came. And they swam over and under me and all around me, they were jumping at me. And they were so stressed that I could pick them up with one hand, just to check to see what sex they were. It’s absolutely heartbreaking watching them die, knowing there’s nothing I can do about it.”
Lloyd also provided an affidavit for the court, along with photographs of the dead fish.
The Examiner asked DFO for comment.
“Given the current provincial State of Emergency and Emergency Order, the Ministerial Order was not reissued this week,” replied spokesperson Lauren Sankey. “DFO will continue to monitor the situation closely.”
“DFO remains committed to the protection of fish and fish habitat and the ongoing work with the Province related to the Avon River Aboiteau,” continued Sankey. “We are aware of a gaspereau mortality event that occurred over the weekend in Windsor, Nova Scotia, and the department’s Conservation and Protection program is currently gathering information.”
The Examiner also provided Lohr’s Emergency Management Office a detailed list of questions related to the closure of the aboiteau. Should his office respond, we’ll update this article.
With files from Joan Baxter.
A few hours after this article was published, the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaw Chiefs issued a press release calling for the DFO Ministerial Order on the Avon River aboiteau to be reinstated. The press release states:
“We understand immediate decisions had to be made in response to the wildfires, but we were concerned that this decision would erase all the work that has been done in this waterway. We are not over a week out from this emergency decision, and we can see already how the environment is being severely impacted,” said Chief Gerald Toney, Fisheries Co-Lead for the Assembly.”
The recent change in operation of the gates at the Avon causeway blocks fish passage and does not provide consistent and/or adequate flows downstream during low tide, impacting fish habitat and the ability for fish to complete their life cycles.
“The Ministerial Order to open the aboiteau gates had been working and this emergency override is impacting the environment and killing fish. Every day we are getting reports that more and more fish are dying. We need a reversal of the emergency decision now,” continued Chief Toney.
The Assembly is calling on the Nova Scotia government to work collaboratively with them and DFO to employ alternative measures to ensure adequate water access that does not destroy the ecosystem, nor infringe on Mi’kmaw Rights. The Assembly appreciates the immense efforts by the first responders to keep people and property safe from the threat of the devastation wildfires and wants to avoid ongoing and further damage to the establishing saltmarsh and other fish habitat created upstream of the causeway under the federal order.