Yesterday, the Examiner reported on how politicians have inflamed passions in Hants County over the fate of the man-made freshwater Lake Pisiquid. Today, we look at the toll the controversy is taking on the community.
This past weekend West Hants Mayor Abraham Zebian posted on his Facebook page photos of two signs that had been put up in the town of Windsor. In his post, he said he had been hesitating to do so because of the signs’ “disgusting nature.”
The mayor wrote a long and heartfelt message, part of which read:
I’m so disappointed in our community for the things that are being said in regards to the Avon River and Lake Pisiquid, spoken, read, and viewed on social media, on our streets and sidewalks, in our recreation areas, places of business, schools, and all areas to be frank. West Hants…THIS IS NOT INSPIRING! We are better than this!
We pride ourselves in being able to speak freely without being censored. What happened to respectful, constructive dialogue where we can discuss and debate our opinions without attacking each other? These pictures were raised with me over the last 24 hours from visitors outside Nova Scotia, Legion members, fire department volunteers, and even from a very prominent figure within an upper level of government (no political stripes & I must keep it confidential). I was so embarrassed while I was attempting to express that our community is a great place to be part of. For the first time, words could not cover the effect these pictures had on people. Words could not clean these images from these people’s minds. They questioned West Hants’ ability to promote “INSPIRATION “ with actions like this taking place…
I’ve always said I’m PROUD to call West Hants my home. This weekend, even with all the great and inspirational events taking place, I was embarrassed! …
I’m not sure who put these signs up. I don’t think we will ever know. But if you are reading this and these signs are yours please know that you are better than this. Please know you are a valued part of our community and we want to hear your opinions but in a respectful and constructive way. For everyone arguing on social media…. doesn’t it ever get tiring? The same comments, the same opinions, the same insults over and over and over again! Please turn the social media off, go hug your loved ones, read a book, take advantage of today because you might not have a tomorrow.
‘Free speech is not hate speech’
Perhaps no one knows better than Alex Hanes how difficult it is to manage and monitor online discussions about Lake Pisiquid, the freshwater reservoir created by the closure of the aboiteau across the Avon River in Windsor.
Hanes administers the Hants County and Beyond Facebook page, where debate over the lake and aboiteau has been raging in recent weeks, since provincial politicians reignited the divisive issue.
As detailed yesterday, Pisiquid Lake is a man-made reservoir formed in 1970 after the construction of the Windsor causeway across the Avon River.
The water in the lake emptied following a 2021 ministerial order from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) stipulating that Pisiquid be restored to its natural state, and the aboiteau in the causeway be opened to allow fish passage during incoming and outgoing tides.
But on June 1, provincial Emergency Measures Minister John Lohr declared a local state of emergency and ordered the aboiteau closed so the lake could refill to provide water resources for firefighting. Lohr’s order overrode the DFO ministerial order.
The provincial emergency order rekindled the controversy and sparked heated debate in the community.
Hanes periodically posts warnings to the Hants County and Beyond Facebook page‘s 14,500 followers to “keep the comments civilized or be suspended,” reminding them they can “debate without slinging hate.”
Moderating the comments isn’t easy.
In an interview, Hanes tells the Halifax Examiner that it sometimes gets to a point where he too has to get angry to try to calm commenters down. He says he tried all last weekend to get his point across that free speech is not hate speech, and people still argued with him.
Hanes says it can be like dealing with children. “That’s what I’m dealing with. I gave one fellow a timeout last night, and he ranted at me until 1:30 in the morning on private messenger.”
Hanes doesn’t like blocking people and thinks it’s important to hear what they are saying.
But, he admits, sometimes the ugliness spills off the internet and onto the streets, into real life.
‘400-pound, 40-year-old that’s off his rocker’
After he gave one follower a “timeout for being racist, for cursing and swearing,” Hanes says the person was very angry, and threatened to come to Windsor and find him. Hanes continues:
I’m not a violent person, but I’m not going to back down from anybody … I thought I could meet with him and maybe reason with him. I was parked at the roundabout at Tim Hortons downtown and told him what I was driving. He parks behind me and sits there for over 20 minutes staring at me. Then I see his door open and he came at a full run right up to my car door. He stuck his head in the window and started screaming at me at the top of his lungs. The boy’s got anger issues. It was so bad, he was spitting all over me. I just stood my ground, and said “I’m not going to be bullied.”
It’s an awful situation. I’m 59, too old to be fighting with some 400-pound, 40-year-old that’s off his rocker.
Although the incident was “quite scary,” Hanes says his real fear is for the Mi’kmaw grandmothers who are often at the causeway.
“I’ve been over there and heard people shouting at them. They get a lot of support but they also have a lot of haters. I worry somebody is going to do something to them.”
Hanes believes “deep-seated” racism is “alive and well” in the area.
“I’m so ashamed of my community,” he says. “I’m born and raised in Hants County. Windsor has always been my home town. It’s about to erupt into violence, we’ve had our troubles in the past, but I’ve never felt such tension ever. It’s really saddening.”
Hanes estimates that there is a 50:50 split in the community, with half wanting to keep the freshwater lake and half wanting tidal flow and fish passage restored. In his view, the only purpose of the lake — which he notes is actually a reservoir — is that it looks pretty. And he doesn’t think it’s worth spending many millions of dollars on a new dam “to block a river that shouldn’t have been blocked in the first place.”
“I blame the provincial government for all the foolishness,” Hanes adds. “This whole thing is political. It’s all about people with money. There are rich and powerful people in Windsor and they get their way every time.”
“It’s a good old boys’ club in this town,” Hanes says. He is worried about what is still to come:
The longer this goes on, the more dangerous the situation gets. You know what’s going to happen? The violence will hit when they finally do drain the lake again. These people that are gloating now that they have their beautiful lake back, when they take that away, there will be hell to pay. I guarantee it. I just have a bad feeling.
At the receiving ends of threats
Darren Porter, whose name appeared on one of the signs in the photos posted by Mayor Zebian, is a local fisherman who has championed free fish passage and ecosystem restoration on the Avon River. Porter has filed a legal challenge in the Nova Scotia Supreme Court against provincial minister John Lohr’s emergency order to close the aboiteau and refill Lake Pisiquid.
Porter tells the Examiner that in addition to online threats and hate against him, “in person people are getting much more aggressive when I go to town.” He says messages about his whereabouts are spread online, and he will find himself facing “a bunch of trucks, 10 or 15 feet away,” with the drivers staring at him, or saying they will “teach me a lesson.”
Porter says his boat has also been circled by someone “on a high-powered jet ski” and nails have been placed on his boat ramp to puncture his tires. “It’s mob mentality, created by local politicians,” he says. “It’s their wedge issue, and anyone that dares to speak up is beaten down.”
On Monday, Porter went to the RCMP with his concerns. “They started a file and will patrol when we’re in town and with the boat as well,” he tells the Halifax Examiner.
‘Advantages of both’ approaches
Amateur historian and photographer Irvin Leopold is relatively sanguine about the situation. He tells the Examiner he isn’t “for or against anything.”
Leopold, who lives in Falmouth right on the Avon River, is 64 years old, and he recalls the area before the causeway went in, when he would see the tidal bore several kilometres upstream.
Now, he says, “There’s major battles going on here. We’ve got people that want the causeway blown up, done, and let the river flow as it did before the early 1970s. There’s other people that absolutely cherish the fact that we have fresh water here.”
In Leopold’s view, those who want the causeway “blown up” express their opinions “to the extreme” and are “way more vocal” than those who want the freshwater lake.
“They’re kind of quiet and they lay back and they’re not going to get into any disputes over the waterway,” Leopold says, although this doesn’t explain the kind of vitriol Hanes has been receiving from supporters of the lake, or the threats levelled at Darren Porter.
Leopold says he sees “advantages of both” approaches to the waterway. But he argues that for those interested in the welfare of fish, a better approach than spending a lot of money on “blowing up the causeway and all that stuff” would be to work upstream on the Avon River to construct deep pools cool enough for fish to take refuge when the water temperature is too high.
In his view, the protestors at the causeway will “eventually get tired and go home.”
Leopold says he’s open-minded, and “friends with everybody.”
‘Nobody was complaining’
Another resident of Falmouth, Mitchell Brison, the brother of former MP Scott Brison, is not so diplomatic.
In an interview, Brison says he is the biggest developer in the Annapolis Valley, and his group of companies has been “instrumental in growing the area” around Windsor.
“I live on Lake Pisiquid,” Brison tells the Examiner. “I moved there and I’ve had land on the lake for probably 25 years. We use it as a freshwater lake, for swimming, recreation and everything else.”
“The lake’s been in five and half decades and no one was complaining about anything until the Fisheries Act was changed in 2019 to say all species [of fish have to be protected].”
Brison says even with the freshwater lake in place, the aboiteau was being opened at key times and fish were getting through.
Brison tells the Examiner that with the tide blocked and the lake in place, everyone was “actually happy.” But after the Fisheries Act was changed, he says “Indigenous groups and Darren Porter got involved.”
Brison’s comments about Porter become personal. “He’s a bad man, it’s just that simple,” says Brison. “And you can quote me on that … He has a very, very poor name in this area.”
Brison even criticizes the research work Porter has been doing in the Avon Estuary and his work with Mi’kmaw groups. “He’s hooked up with the universities and he’s hooked up with the Indigenous somehow. So that’s how he’s making his living,” says Brison.
Two of the scientists with whom Darren Porter has worked over the years have signed affidavits that have been submitted to the Nova Scotia Supreme Court as part of Porter’s legal challenge of the provincial emergency order to close the aboiteau and refill the lake.
One, Trevor Avery, a full professor of biology and mathematics and statistics at Acadia University who has spent years studying the Avon Estuary wrote that the closing of the aboiteau has caused “ecological changes that affect fish passage and habitat (including water quality), as well as affect general ecosystem balance” and “compromised or prevented the migration of fishes.”
A second scientist, Michael Dadswell, adjunct professor in the Department of Biology at Acadia University, opined that the “closure of the tide gate and filling of Lake Pisiquid on June 1 was detrimental to this year’s spawning run of sea lamprey, grasperau, American shad and striped bass,” and the “rapid change from sea water to fresh water at the causeway probably led to some mortality of adults.”
‘We lost an awful lot’
Brison says when the lake is full it is about 12 feet deep, and notes that, “the community was growing around the lake.”
Among other companies, Brison owns Glooscap Developments, which owns several properties totalling about 900 acres on the western side of Highway 101, not far from Falmouth and Lake Pisiquid.
Brison explains what happened with the lake was emptied:
When I used to do advertisements to people in Ontario — I’ve got a retirement community here with around 700 – 800 people in it — and I used to advertise the pumpkin regatta and advertise the lake and everything else. And now I had to take that off my advertisement … All these people wanted the lake and wanted the water and it was well used. The federal government came along and took the canoe club, which I was a big sponsor of, and moved it with government money, to get rid of that stakeholder. ACOA (Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency] also come along and gave [Ski] Martock a million and a half dollars … so they could get fresh water. Martock always drew fresh water out of the lake for snowmaking. So two of the main stakeholders were removed by the federal government through the ACOA program…They didn’t want Martock to shut down. In my opinion and my opinion only, if they had left the lake in the way it was until they come up with a solution that made sense, none of that had to happen… And we didn’t have to spend three or four million dollars.
“We lost our pumpkin regatta which was a beautiful fall event on Thanksgiving weekend. I put pumpkins in every year, we raced in it, I helped people race in it. It was a beautiful thing, something we were known for. So we lost an awful lot,” Brison says.
Brison tells the Examiner he has been pushing the municipal council for the past two years to do something to save the lake. He notes that he is “probably in front of council more than anyone else” because of all the developments he builds.
“I know all the councillors and now council want fresh water, they want the lake,” Brison says.
“The community is on side now, depending on how far you want to go to call the people part of the community,” he argues. “Most of the people that are online and social media that are against this lake, they’re not part of our community. They’re not here. They have no skin in the game … At least 80% of the people in this area want that body of water. It’s that simple.”
Brison again launches into a tirade against Darren Porter, saying he should “stay away” and that he has no business in Windsor.
Concerned about ‘racism, bullying, threats, slander’
A health professional familiar with the controversy tells the Halifax Examiner that the issue around the Avon River causeway is deeply worrying. The person has requested anonymity for their own safety, which is indicative of how fraught the situation has become in the community.
“I am concerned about behaviours of racism, bullying, threats, slander, and general hatred and hostility,” the health professional writes in an email.
“It is my perspective that these behaviours are emerging from anger, systemic racism, and lack of diplomacy from our politicians. It is my concern that there is verbal and emotional harm being caused by these behaviours, and the possibility that it could escalate to physical harm.”
“There are also various racist attitudes and behaviours being displayed that are deeply embedded in individuals, systems and institutions. Microaggressions are being expressed regularly on Facebook pages,” says the email.
The health professional writes that the Progressive Conservative MLA for the riding, Melissa Sheehy-Richard, who appeared in a video with Premier Tim Houston in May and called the empty lake “heartbreaking,” is “blatantly ignoring the requests for communication from the Nova Scotia Assembly of Mi’kmaw Chiefs.”
The email concludes:
I believe this behaviour is completely unacceptable. It certainly does not support reconciliation, and normalizes this kind of behaviour.
We also have a disheartening history of environmental racism here in Nova Scotia, and this is yet another example…Individuals and the government have the opportunity right now to reflect on the past and correct mistakes that have been made.
We need to remember that we are in Mi’kma’ki, the ancestral territory of the Mi’kmaq people. We need to recognize that “Pisquid” comes from the Mi’kmaq word Pesaquid, meaning “Junction of Waters.”
The MLA needs to be leading by example and upholding their truth and reconciliation agreement, and contributing to a safe society for all through diplomatic process.
The province’s emergency order for Windsor, stipulating that the aboiteau be closed to keep Lake Pisiquid full of fresh water, is up for renewal on Thursday, June 29. Darren Porter’s legal challenge to the order will be heard in the Nova Scotia Supreme Court on July 18.