The day-by-day countdown to the closing of Boat Harbour happens on a large painting erected in front of the Pictou Landing First Nation band council office. The painting depicts Boat Harbour as it was before it was dammed (and damned) in 1966, transformed from a healthy tidal estuary to a stinking lagoon for the toxic effluent from the pulp mill on Abercrombie Point.

On Friday, October 4, 2019, the number at the top of the painting was 118.

After more than 19,300 days of suffering with the stench and pollution of Boat Harbour in their back yard, the people of Pictou Landing First Nation (PLFN) had just 118 more to wait until it would be closed, and they could start looking forward to the remediation and restoration of the estuary they know as “A’se’K ” — and then start to heal from more than half a century of environmental racism.

On the same day, hundreds of people — I’ve heard numbers ranging from 300 to 600, but estimated myself that there were about 500 — assembled on the PLFN reserve for a one-kilometre walk in support of the legislated closure date.

The Boat Harbour Act, passed unanimous by all three parties in April 2015, stipulates that the mill cease using the existing facility by January 31, 2020. However, there is growing pressure on the government to amend the legislation to give Northern Pulp time to get a new effluent treatment facility approved and constructed.

Northern Pulp has said it needs more time, and there has been lobbying by the forestry industry for an extension to the deadline, as well as some doomsday talk, based on a union-funded study by the consulting firm Gardner Pinfold, from Unifor president Jerry Dias about the job losses should the mill close.

Friday’s march was to send a clear and loud message to Premier Stephen McNeil and MLAs: Honour the Boat Harbour Act and close Boat Harbour to mill effluent on January 31, 2020.

The march drew people of all ages and from all walks of life — fishermen, doctors, lawyers, students, and other concerned citizens from all over the province.

There were also politicians, including Liberal MP for Central Nova, Sean Fraser, and country singer George Canyon, who was parachuted in to run in the riding for the Conservative Party in the upcoming federal election. Also marching were Green candidate Barry Randle and NDP candidate Betsy MacDonald, both of whom have stated clearly they are against any extension of the closure date and a proposed effluent treatment facility that involves a pipe into the Northumberland Strait.

Darlene Compton, who is Prince Edward Island’s deputy premier, minister of finance, and Progressive Conservative MLA for Belfast, also attended to show support for the closure date and express concern about pulp effluent in fishing grounds in the Strait.

Google Earth view of Boat Harbour

“On January 31, 2020 that toxic tap will stop”

Marchers chanting “What’s the date? January 31st, 2020!” made their way from the band council office along Highway 348 to the causeway at the mouth of Boat Harbour, where they assembled for speeches and ceremonies.

One side of the causeway offers a view of the dam through which treated and much-diluted effluent from the Northern Pulp mill currently discharges into a narrow outlet and then the Northumberland Strait. The other side offers a deceptively pleasant view of a small part of the Boat Harbour lagoon where the effluent — up to 90 million litres a day — “stabilizes” for a month or so after passing through settling ponds and an aeration basin.

Children from the PLFN, with Boat Harbour behind them. Photo: Joan Baxter

From the causeway, the full extent of the environmental nightmare of Boat Harbour is conveniently hidden from sight by a forested point. Because the wind was not blowing towards PLFN that morning, participants were also spared the stench of the mill and its effluent.

PLFN children took turns at the microphone, bemoaning the loss of A’se’K and looking forward to the day it is cleaned up. Mi’kmaw elders and PLFN band councillors also spoke out in support of the closure, while grassroots grandmother from Sipeknekatik First Nation, Dorene Bernard, offered a prayer in praise of the water, and Tonya Francis tossed a sacred bundle into Boat Harbour.

It was a powerful and poignant ceremony.

Big Cove Mi’kmaw Elders Frank Augustine and Josie Augustine with grassroots grandmother Dorene Bernard. Photo: Joan Baxter
Big Cove Mi’kmaw Elders Frank Augustine and Josie Augustine with grassroots grandmother Dorene Bernard. Photo: Joan Baxter

Michelle Francis-Denny, community liaison for the Boat Harbour Remediation project, told the audience that just four days earlier they had celebrated Treaty Day across Mi’kmaqi, and had gathered for a meal to talk about Peace and Friendship Treaties. She said:

I think it’s important that we remind government and Premier McNeil that the Boat Harbour Act is a promise, much like a Treaty. And it cannot be broken and it will not be broken. We have all of you guys standing with us today. We are not alone any more. And this is a message. 

Michelle Francis-Denny. Photo: Joan Baxter

Francis-Denny said it was “sad” that they had to keep sending these messages, but that this was a reminder:

It’s a reminder [that] we’re not going anywhere. January 31, 2020 that toxic tap will stop! 

But will it?

“Carved in stone,” but when?

In a recent opinion piece in the Chronicle Herald, Premier Stephen McNeil said he wanted to “set the record straight” on Northern Pulp and the clean-up of Boat Harbour. Wrote the premier:

Boat Harbour will be cleaned up. There will be a comprehensive, science-based review conducted to assess Northern Pulp’s proposal to build a new effluent treatment facility as part of its mill operations in Abercrombie.

These two commitments are carved in stone and I want to be clear about their meaning.

First, my pledge to the people of Pictou Landing First Nation (PLFN), and to Chief Andrea Paul, will be honoured. Northern Pulp will stop pumping effluent into Boat Harbour, and that body of water will be restored as a tidal estuary.

Conspicuously missing from those lines was the all-important date of when the effluent would stop.

For whatever reason, McNeil omitted any mention of January 31, 2020 in his op-ed.

NDP leader Gary Burrill questioning Premier McNeil

On October 1, which was also Treaty Day, NDP leader Gary Burrill questioned Premier McNeil about Northern Pulp, zeroing in first on the findings of the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal decision of September 17, 2019.

The court had determined the government had provided funding “toward the design, engineering, environmental assessment, partial settlement of Northern Pulp’s threatened lawsuit against the Province, and, at the Province’s option, capital cost of the New ETF” [Effluent Treatment Facility]. It concluded that these funding agreements (resulting in a payment of $6 million from the province), which were kept secret from the public, would:

  1. reduce the likelihood that Northern Pulp would allow the Mill to close after January 30, 2020, to avoid paying the full cost of a New ETF; and
  2. heighten the likelihood of ministerial approvals that are necessary for the Mill to operate after January 30, 2020.

In other words, because of the provincial funding towards the new effluent treatment facility for Northern Pulp, the government was more likely to support the continued operation of the mill after the Boat Harbour deadline, and more likely to provide ministerial approvals that would allow that to happen.

The court decided that the government was obliged to consult with PLFN on any funding agreements.

Given the court’s findings, Burrill wanted to know if the premier would “unequivocally reaffirm that not one litre of Abercrombie effluent will flow into Boat Harbour after January 31, 2020?”

McNeil replied that:

… there is a process ongoing around environmental assessment for the mill to meet. To my understanding there has been no application or approval; we’re still moving towards January 31, 2020.

The day after this exchange, Northern Pulp submitted its focus report to Nova Scotia Environment, as required by former Environment Minister Margaret Miller in March this year, when she identified 19 key deficiencies in the company’s original Environmental Assessment documents.

The next day, October 3, the environment department put the new Northern Pulp submission online. It comprises the 245-page focus report, 36 Appendices (with one, Appendix 11.1 “Mi’kmaq Ecological Knowledge Study” not found on the website), and four Addenda. By my reckoning that makes a total of 2,666 pages. Nevertheless, the public has only until November 8 to slog through it all and submit comments, and environment minister Gordon Wilson has to make his decision by December 17, 2019. (I say “slog through” because I have barely made a dent in the submission, and am already bogged down making copious notes about pages full of revisionist history and Paper Excellence / Northern Pulp PR, about which I hope to write another time.)

Premier Stephen McNeil at Question Period.

The day after the submission went online, Friday morning, around the same time that people were marching in Pictou Landing to celebrate the slated closure of Boat Harbour in just 118 days, in the legislature Gary Burrill again asked Premier McNeil to give PLFN the “unequivocal affirmation” that they were seeking about Boat Harbour:

So I ask him [the premier] again, will he say plainly that not one drop of effluent will flow into Boat Harbour after January 31 next year?

Once again, McNeil gave an oblique answer:

I want to recognize the people of Pictou Landing who have been tremendous in dealing with this issue that is now decades old. There’s a piece of legislation that has been passed in this house unanimously, that has that closing the 31st of [January] 2020, and there is no other piece of legislation to change that.

Burrill pointed out that Northern Pulp’s focus report states the new effluent treatment facility will take 21 months to construct, so it could not possibly be completed before the legislated closure date for Boat Harbour, and he again challenged Premier McNeil on what people could expect from him:

And so, at this moment, two paths are diverging, one where the Boat Harbour effluent facility stays open, and one where it is closed. In addition to the people of Pictou Landing, thousands of people who work in the woods and in this mill and other mills and on the water, and who live in the rest of the communities of Pictou County and beyond, are looking to the premier in this moment, not for an evasion, or a bureaucratic diversion, or for a shrug, but for leadership towards an honourable resolution for this situation. What does the premier have to offer?

McNeil replied that, “. . . there’s a regulator in this province that deals with environmental assessments. That’s not the premier.”

And:

The company, like every company that wants an environmental assessment in this province, has the responsibility to do the work to ensure that it goes to the regulator. They’ll base the facts on science, the honourable member knows there was one put in before that was rejected by the regulator. I have no idea what the regulator will do with this piece of information. They are working to put together but it will be based on the facts around science, that’s what will take place.

What could happen if the government caves

Premier McNeil’s refusal to state, unequivocally, that the closure date enshrined in the Boat Harbour Act will be respected is making Chief Andrea Paul nervous.

In an interview after Friday’s march, she told me:

I’ve been really positive on this date. I’ve been really watching this government, and watching the premier on how he answers the questions, and I want to continue to hold that faith. I am getting a little nervous. But I keep digging deep inside because he promised. He made that promise to Pictou Landing First Nation. And I heard it from him. And I’m really holding him to that because it meant so much to Pictou Landing First Nation, when that happened.

I asked Paul what she thought could happen were McNeil’s government to cave to the pressure to change the Act and extend the use of Boat Harbour until Northern Pulp had a new effluent facility approved, and up and running.

Chief Paul began, “I think there would be…” Then she paused for several seconds, weighing her thoughts and words before continuing:

There’s going be a blowout. It’s going be huge. I think we’re going have a huge crisis on our hands. And when I say crisis, I don’t want to compare it to something, but I often think of Oka, that this is what’s going to happen, that we’re going to have a lot of people that are going to be standing and protecting this water.

The Oka Crisis to which Chief Paul refers is the 78-day standoff in 1990 when the Mohawk resisted plans for a golf course and condominium construction on land that included a Mohawk burial ground. It resulted in the death of a Sûreté du Québec police officer, and eventually the army was called in.

Chief Andrea Paul unveils a gift from Rob Holten, a stone into which he carved the closure date for “A’se’K of 31 January 2020, after reading Premier McNeil’s oped in which he said his commitment to close Boat Harbour was “carved in stone,” but failed to confirm that the legislated date would be respected. Photo: Joan Baxter

The pipe divide

Respect for the Boat Harbour Act was not the only message that participants in Friday’s march had for government officials and politicians.

“No pipe” hats were everywhere. So were large signs saying “No pulp waste in our water” and “No pipe in the Strait,” referring to Northern Pulp’s proposal, as detailed in its focus report, to pump up to 85 million litres of warm, treated effluent through a pipe almost a metre in diameter and stretching about 10 kilometres from the mill to the PEI ferry wharf at Caribou, and then another four kilometres out into the fishing grounds of the Northumberland Strait.

Chief Andrea Paul stands by a billboard with a message for Premier McNeil and MLAs. Photo: Joan Baxter

Since late 2017, when Northern Pulp first revealed its plans to construct an activated sludge treatment facility beside the mill on Abercrombie Strait and to pipe the treated effluent directly into the Northumberland Strait, fishermen in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island — together with citizen groups such as Friends of the Northumberland Strait, have strongly opposed the idea (more on that history here and here).

Their concerns about the proposal were largely vindicated when Environment Minister Margaret Miller confirmed that Northern Pulp’s original environmental assessment submission in January this year was incomplete, that many studies and important pieces of information were simply missing, including even a characterization of what would be in the treated effluent.

From the beginning, critics of the proposal have called for a federal environmental assessment, and argued that because of its many legal obligations to the mill over the years, which make it responsible for the effluent and costs associated with it, the province is in a conflict of interest.

The recent Court of Appeal findings that the province is compromised in its role as regulator because of its funding agreements with Northern Pulp echo these concerns.

The Friends of the Northumberland Strait submitted 6,000 letters to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (renamed the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada, after the Impact Assessment Act came into force on August 28 this year), asking that the federal government undertake its own assessment of Northern Pulp’s proposed effluent treatment facility.

In February this year, Green Party leader Elizabeth May tabled an e-petition in the House of Commons, also requesting a federal environmental assessment for the proposed pipe.

On Friday, Darlene Compton, deputy premier in PEI’s Progressive Conservative government, told me she has said from “day one” that there should “absolutely” be a federal assessment for the effluent treatment facility. She said that the province of Nova Scotia is in a “conflict of interest” and should not be deciding on the proposal.

MP for Central Nova Sean Fraser, who also attended the march, is the parliamentary secretary to Catherine McKenna, Canada’s minister of environment and climate change.

I asked Fraser why the Canadian government decided to undertake a federal environmental assessment of the Boat Harbour Remediation, when it is not doing the same for the new effluent treatment facility.

He replied, “There’s not been a decision taken that there is not a federal assessment required.”

And:

In fact there’s a new piece of legislation that just came into effect on August 28 that Chief Paul testified in support of, that built out additional criteria that have to be considered, including the impact that major projects have on human health, on the cumulative impacts of climate change, and the rights of Indigenous communities. The Minister has directed the agency to reconsider the request for designation with these broader criteria.

Then, he offered this, and I’m including it because I hope that someone out there with a lot more smarts than I have will be able to figure it out:

The other thing that I think is important too to highlight is because there are so many different layers of federal regulations and federal legislative requirements including an environmental effects determination under section 67 of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, the federal government has to be involved to consider it. So the only way that there would not be a federal assessment is if the other tests that are in place provide the equivalent level of protection against the potential harm for this project. So the decision to do — or not do — a federal assessment hinges on a conclusion that in fact the other measures that the federal government has put in place offer at least the same level of environmental protection.

Unable to pin Fraser down on why a federal assessment has still not been undertaken, I asked him what he thought about the province’s decision to subject the effluent treatment proposal to a shorter Class I assessment rather than the longer and more thorough Class II environmental assessment, which would have provided the public more time to read, digest, and comment on the thousands of pages in the Northern Pulp submission.

His reply:

I had some reservations about the abbreviated period of time that the public has to consider what’s contained in the document. I tried to load the document last night. My link was broken.

As for whether his presence at the march meant he wanted to see Boat Harbour close in January 2020, with no extension on the date, Fraser said he would have liked to see it close “decades ago.” He quickly reminded me that the federal government is chipping in $100 million to help the province cover the cost of remediating Boat Harbour, which project manager Ken Swain last year said could cost up to $325 million.

But, Fraser added:

If I had made a commitment to the Pictou Landing First Nation to close the effluent treatment facility Boat Harbour, I would keep it.

And then:

I don’t know what the province is going to do with it. It’s a difficult question for them, for sure.”

A tangled path forward

The government has a few weeks before it has to make any decisions on this difficult question, while Nova Scotia Environment studies the Northern Pulp focus report.

On page xxii of the report, in a section about the origins of the mill in Pictou County and the history of the Boat Harbour treatment facility, it states:

The government owned [sic] and operated treatment facility lead [sic] to good job opportunities, and promise for the economy. Although it offered opportunities, it also impacted residents surrounding Boat Harbour (A’se’K), including the people of Pictou Landing First Nation (PLFN). The proposed replacement ETF outlined in this Focus Report and associated Environmental Assessment documentation provides a new path forward.

I asked Chief Paul if she thought the proposed replacement treatment facility was really a “new path forward.” She replied:

No, absolutely, I don’t think it does. I feel like we’re just continuing the harm that’s been inflicted on us for all these years and we’re just expanding that harm. I don’t see how that would be a good path. I absolutely don’t see how that would be good.


Joan Baxter is author of The Mill: Fifty Years of Pulp and Protest.

The Halifax Examiner is an advertising-free, subscriber-supported news site. Your subscription makes this work possible; please subscribe.

Joan Baxter

Joan Baxter is an award-winning Nova Scotian journalist and author of seven books, including "The Mill: Fifty Years of Pulp and Protest." Website: www.joanbaxter.ca;...

Join the Conversation

1 Comment

Only subscribers to the Halifax Examiner may comment on articles. We moderate all comments. Be respectful; whenever possible, provide links to credible documentary evidence to back up your factual claims. Please read our Commenting Policy.
Cancel reply