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Boat Harbour victim impact statement: a story of deception and broken promises

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – A victim impact statement submitted by the Pictou Landing First Nation after Northern Pulp pleaded guilty to Fisheries Act violations earlier this  year describes a trail of sixty years of deceit and broken promises by the provincial government.

The only time there would be a bit of a smell would be in spring as the ice in the lagoon was breaking up, community members were told.

The impact statement pertains to the court case following the June 2014 leakage of four million litres of toxic effluent from a decayed pipeline over lands claimed by the First Nation into the East River. Northern Pulp pleaded guilty of violating the Fisheries Act and was fined $225,000.

The leak angered long-suffering community members who for eleven days prevented Northern Pulp access to the site. The blockade was only lifted when the province agreed to introduce legislation to shut down the facility by January 30 2020.

“The creation of the Boat Harbour treatment facility was a classic case of environmental racism in the province of Nova Scotia,” says Brian Hebert, a Halifax lawyer who has represented Pictou Landing since 2006.

“For instance, you can see from the historical evidence how the provincial government, through the Water Commision of the day, tried to bamboozle people. That’s all part of the early record,” says Hebert.

The mill leases the treatment lagoon and adjacent lands from the province. This is why the government figures so prominently in this story.

The impact statement documents how in 1965, prior to the construction of the Boat Harbour treatment facility, the Nova Scotia Water Authority, representing the provincial government, assured upset members of the Pictou Landing First Nation that the lagoon would remain suitable for boating, and even that fresh-water fish could be introduced.

The only time there would be a bit of a smell would be in spring as the ice in the lagoon was breaking up, community members were told.

That same Water Authority took some members of the First Nation leadership to see a totally different  non-operational sewage treatment facility in New Brunswick, to convince them of just how negligible the impact of the Boat Harbour facility to the community would be.

Once built Boat Harbour quickly turned deeply toxic and foul-smelling, adversely affecting the health of community members and dramatically changing their way of life.

The community lost a place to fish, to hunt waterfowl, to safely anchor boats, and for kids to swim. By all accounts it was a special place. Mi’kmaq from all over Nova Scotia would come down to relax and fish at Boat Harbour.

Several government memos and reports attached to the impact statement mention the strong opposition to the treatment facility as expressed meeting after meeting by Pictou Landing First Nation community members.

“Last but not least, no consideration seems to have been given for the feelings of the Indian people by authorities proposing to ruin for ever an area considered by the Micmac people to be their very own,” notes one such government memo in 1965.   

The impact statement goes on to describe how government commitments to close the treatment facility and restore Boat Harbour to its former state have repeatedly been broken.  

In 1991 the province announced that the treatment facility would be closed in 1995, but when the time arrived that commitment was extended to 2005, at which time Boat Harbour was to be remediated.

In 2001 a new deadline of 2030 was set for the removal of the entire treatment facility, with the understanding that most of Boat Harbour would be restored way before that date, first by 2005, then by 2008. It never happened.

Now of course there is the 2015 legislation that commits the province to shut down the treatment site by 2020. There is also an agreement in principle between the Pictou Landing First Nation and the province, suggesting that the lagoon will be restored to its original state of tidal estuary.

It apears that many community members remain sceptical, not surprising given the many broken commitments in the past. Chief Andrea Paul has gone on record as being “cautiously optimistic,” says Hebert. 

And the current legislation lacks teeth, says Hebert.

“When you look at the legislation, it doesn’t it make it an offence to continue to use Boat Harbour after that date,” says Hebert. “It doesn’t specify any penalties or sanctions.”

Adding to these worries is that in 1995 the government signed a very broad indemnity agreement with the pulp mill, transferring risks from Northern Pulp to the province, says Hebert.

“That agreement basically said that if the mill had to close Boat Harbour for whatever reason than the province would indemnify the mill for all kinds of losses, including loss of profit,” Hebert says.

A lawsuit initiated by the band council in 2010 continues to be pursued, Hebert says.

“The band remains very concerned. After all, money and jobs talk,” says Hebert. “If the province and the mill don’t come to some sort of agreement, and the new treatment facility does not get built, then there will be a lot of pressure to keep the existing treatment facility.”

That’s been the pattern. We have to be vigilant, that’s why the lawsuit is still there.”

Brian Hebert maintains the Canadian Aboriginal Law Blog, well worth a visit.

This story was modified in the morning of May 12, 2016, to provide more detail on the various government commitments to shut down the treatment plant.