Defending the Northumberland Strait and the communities that depend on it

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Boat Seaview Cape Tormentine. Image: Michel Rathwell/Flickr

Jill Graham-Scanlan is a lifelong resident of Pictou County, Nova Scotia, a lawyer, and the president of the Friends of the Northumberland Strait. Scott Neigh interviews her about the group's work to oppose a plan that would see effluent from the Northern Pulp mill piped into the strait, putting ecosystems, fisheries and communities at risk.

The Northumberland Strait is that part of the Gulf of St. Lawrence that lies between Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia. It is a relatively shallow and relatively warm body of water, containing a rich but fragile ecosystem. Tourism and particularly fishing are crucial industries for the surrounding communities, and both depend on the continued health and cleanliness of the strait.

Another industry that is active in some parts of Nova Scotia is forestry. For over 50 years, there has been a pulp mill -- currently called Northern Pulp -- sitting near both the town of Pictou as well as Pictou Landing First Nation, towards the eastern end of the Nova Scotia side of the Northumberland Strait.

There have been concerns for many years about Northern Pulp's environmental impacts, but none so serious as what it has done to Boat Harbour. Originally a tidal bay on the Northumberland Strait, Boat Harbour is of central importance to the Mi'kmaq people of Pictou Landing First Nation, for whom it had always been a source of food and medicines and a central part of their community. Since the opening of the mill, the effluent from the chemical process that produces the pulp has been piped into Boat Harbour. Today, it is highly polluted and the ecosystem has been largely destroyed, in what has been characterized as one of Nova Scotia's most prominent instances of environmental racism.

For decades, Pictou Landing First Nation struggled to end the flow of toxins into Boat Harbour. In 2014, they finally succeeded in pushing the province to pass a piece of legislation mandating the closure of the effluent treatment facility at Boat Harbour by January 31, 2020.

This has meant, of course, that if it wants to keep operating, Northern Pulp must find some other way to dispose of its wastes. Their proposal is to build a new treatment facility on the same site as the mill, and then a pipe that would transport the effluent from that facility out into the Northumberland Strait.

This is where Jill Graham-Scanlan enters the picture. Friends of the Northumberland Strait came together in late 2017 around concerns about the impact of Northern Pulp's proposal. It has two simple goals: To make sure that Northern Pulp's effluent is not piped into the Northumberland Strait. And to make sure that the January 31, 2020 deadline for closing the facility at Boat Harbour remains firm.

The group has been active in educating themselves, the public and politicians. It has produced a significant volume of its own material and an excellent website. It has worked to mobilize the community and to put pressure on politicians.

An important milestone for the group was a rally organized last summer in Pictou in collaboration with a working-group of people in the fishery as well as Pictou Landing First Nation. More than 3,000 people attended -- an impressive enough number for a rally in a big city, but truly remarkable for rural Nova Scotia.

Friends of the Northumberland Strait has also been actively intervening in the ongoing regulatory process around Northern Pulp's proposal, with the support of Ecojustice, Canada's largest environmental law charity. It has worked to help other local residents in intervening as well. Though the province is subjecting the project to the lowest possible level of relevant environmental assessment, its decision at the end of March on the company's initial proposal was encouraging. Regulators identified numerous areas where Northern Pulp had submitted inadequate information, and have given the company a year to submit additional studies so that a final decision can be made.

Friends of the Northumberland Strait will continue with its educational work and with its interventions in the assessment process. And it will continue to put pressure on politicians to honour the January 2020 date for shutting down the Boat Harbour facility.

Image: Michel Rathwell/Flickr

Theme music: "It Is the Hour (Get Up)" by Snowflake, via CCMixter


Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out its website here. You can also follow them on Facebook or Twitter, or contact [email protected] to join our weekly email update list.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton (formerly Sudbury), Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

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