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Alton Gas resistance update: Treaty Island, Truckhouses, and Teepees.

Photo credit: April Maloney

Sunset on the Shubenacadie. Photo credit: April Maloney

I’ve been spending a lot of time along the banks of the Shubenacadie River this summer while helping out with the resistance to Alton Gas. It’s a real knife in the heart to watch this incredible and dynamic ecosystem get slowly and systematically uprooted by AltaGas in their work to build a salt brine discharge system, but my heart bleeds a little less when I’m with the people who are behind the creative and compelling resistance to the destruction.

Every aspect of this project poses real risks to the health and safety of neighbours and the environment, and one risk of particular concern is that to the river. If you’ve been following our Every Lake, Every River campaign, you’ll know that most rivers in Canada, including the Shubie, are not protected under the Navigation Protection Act and are at risk of corporate interests polluting our waters with all manner of toxins despite community opposition and lack of Indigenous consent. In addition, the pipeline that would carry natural gas to and from the caverns is slated to cross the Stewiacke River. Because the former Harper government exempted pipelines and powerlines from being reviewed under the Navigation Protection Act and Trudeau has yet to address this glaring issue, the natural gas pipeline won’t be reviewed for its impacts on navigable waters.

For these reasons and many more, Mi’kmaq and non-Indigenous allies are opposing Alton Gas. The centrepiece of the resistance is the truckhouse, which is a fishing and trade building that is written into the Peace and Friendship treaties of the 1700s as an absolute right for Mi’kmaq and their trading partners. Simply by the nature of treaty rights, they are for all treaty beneficiaries – that means Mi’kmaq and non-Indigenous people alike have the right to visit the truckhouse, giving everyone treaty-protected access to the river.

The truckhouse. Photo credit: April Maloney

As far as anyone in the resistance knows, a truckhouse has not been constructed along the Shubenacadie in over 200 years. For three weeks Mi’kmaq have been building and painting the truckhouse to demonstrate the resistance to Alton Gas, and the continued dependence and connection to the river. It has already been an incredible force in the resistance: people are drawn to it, it’s a physical space for us to strategize and appreciate the river, and it’s an incredible visual tool for communicating the resistance out to a broader public.

Many meetings have been taking place at the truckhouse, and they’re usually in the evening just around dusk. The truckhouse is on the east side of the river, so the sun sets across from us, bouncing crimson across the water. There are often eagles and other birds, tracks from otters and foxes, and other signs of thriving life. It’s incredible to be so viscerally reminded of what we’re fighting for.

I am learning so much about relationship building and organizing in such a diverse group of people, and I’m sure I’ll keep learning from this summer for years to come. I’m constantly reminded of the value of truly creative and collaborative action, and the need to develop action plans in inclusive ways. Tapping into all of the knowledge, culture, history, and education of the widely diverse group that has come together to stop Alton Gas has resulted in a movement beyond what I could ever have imagined on my own, and one that I’m sure will continue to amaze.

I’ve been reminded that actions that follow an escalation pattern are critical in building a diverse and effective movement. Just a week ago we were told the whole area was a construction zone and we wouldn’t be able to go on the dyke now built up across the whole property. During one visit to the river I actually got an official warning telling me never to return to the work site. Now, we have built stairs in the dirt up to the top of the dyke, installed solar lights to guide people safely to the truckhouse, and set up camp on the riverbank.  We have a firepit, shade tents, an eel weir, multiple eel traps out in the river, and our truckhouse is being decorated by a local painter. Mi’kmaq folks even took back what they’re now calling ‘Treaty Island’ and set up a teepee there with help from settler allies.

Teepee being set up on Treaty Island. This island is man-made as a result of the Alton Gas project. In order to dilute the brine from 280ppt to something closer to the background salinity of the river, Alton Gas dug a giant channel beside the river, leaving this island between the river proper and the mixing channel. Photo credit: Michelle Paul.

I’m reminded that direct action is not the only way to build power and make change. For example, Alton Gas resistors are developing a community monitoring program to keep an eye on the eel in the river. One major concern about this project is the salt and that high concentrations will kill fish, so we’re developing a program to track eel health and hold Alton Gas accountable for any changes.

My instincts always push me to create very structured campaign plans, to methodically determine points of intervention, to pinpoint places where we can have successive wins, and then to grind away until the end.  This work has been so much different. It is fluid. We sometimes use talking circles instead of speakers’ lists and highly structured facilitation. We develop ideas and plans as a big group, rather than a small group bringing a fully formed idea to the whole. But in this new-to-me way of being together, which is a mix of Mi’kmaq ceremony, strategic discussion, physical labour, and Facebook groups, is turning out some pretty incredible results.

Stay tuned for news about the resistance! Join the Facebook group for updates. Don’t forget about the upcoming water walk in the Sikniktuk district of Mi’kmaki (New Brunswick), which will include some water from the Shubenacadie!

Here I am with elder Joe Francis from Sipekne’katik helping to raise the flag that he had originally raised months ago and was later moved by Alton Gas. We’re standing on what we now call Treaty Island mid-conversation with Alton Gas and police. They were not thrilled. Photo credit: Marlene Francis.