I left my house this morning while the stars were still out, realizing that I couldn’t remember the last time I got up that early. I scrambled with my cup of coffee and headed for the Shubenacadie River, as I have been doing so much lately. The sun came up as we were driving, and I arrived at the Treaty Truckhouse while the water was still calm, and steaming slightly in the cool morning air. Cool is actually a gentle word – before long I put on my winter coat despite the fact that it is only September.
I went there for the closing of a four-day sacred fire held by Mi’kmaq leaders of the Alton Gas resistance, and to support elders in making specific demands of the company and the government. We moved from the truckhouse to the entrance of the work site to hold a press conference, and to wait for a response from our premier, Stephen McNeil.
Three grandmothers spoke to the media, addressing the many issues with the Alton Gas project – the risk to the river, the fear of the caverns failing, the expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure, the failure of our environmental laws and responsibility to uphold treaty rights. Beyond those longstanding issues, AltaGas recently threatened to sue Sipekne’katik First Nation if existing eel traps were not removed from the brine mixing channel, and then sent a letter to Chief Copage of Sipekne’katik listing all the ways AltaGas would financially support the community with money if only the opposition to the project stopped. This offer of money was of course met with distain from land and water defenders, and prompted the grandmothers to address the issue today in a press conference.
Isabelle Knockwood, Cheryl Maloney, and Annabelle Thiebeaux made a statement to the press. Photo credit: April Maloney
This is a list of demands that were made by Mi’kmaq and non-indigenous elders today. The main points are copied straight from the the speeches made by the elders, but I have added some context to a few points.
1. Climate change impact research to be done.
As a fossil fuel infrastructure project, Alton Gas will clearly contribute to climate change. Based on everything we know about climate change and the dire need to stop enabling fossil fuels to be burned, this project should not go forward.
We also know that the Shubenacadie River is an will continue to be affected by climate change. Water levels across Nova Scotia will become more extreme as the climate changes – we’ll get more intense downpours and harsher dry spells. This summer the Shubenacadie River was at the lowest level it has seen in decades. The Alton Gas project plans to take mass quantities of water out of the river on each tide cycle to solution mine the caverns. There are real concerns, and very little study, about the effects of taking water out of the river when it is already very low.
2. Give real clarity on rate of brine being dumped directly into the river.
The mixing channel as it stands is a confusing contraption. It is not separate from the river – water flows in and out as the tide changes, and Mi’kmaq fishers are catching fish inside the channel. Alton Gas’s plan is to release highly concentrated brine into the mixing channel, which is effectively just a diversion of the river, while the tide is medium-high. This means there will be water, and likely fish, in that channel when the brine is released, and these fish could be exposed to seriously concentrated brine before it mixes with the river water.
It is not clear to us that the Minster of Environment, nor the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia, understands the process of the brine entering the river, and the risk that poses to water quality and habitat.
3. Protect species and habitat for the Bay of Fundy species. Salmon, eel, and bass are at risk or endangered under the Species at Risk Act. Designate critical habitat according to the DFO Recovery strategies.
Mi’kmaq water defenders asked Fisheries Minister Dominic Leblanc for this action weeks ago. Species at risk research and discussion for these species has been going on for years, and the decision to legally designate the Shubenacadie as critical habitat needs to come now.
4. All permits must be stopped until the full legal appeal process is completed.
This was denied by the courts, and water defenders are now calling on the Government of Nova Scotia to stop Alton Gas from continuing work until the court case is complete.
5. We demand the right to a referendum of the Mi’kmaq people living on and off reserve in the traditional district of Sipeknekatik. A referendum is necessary to meet the legal duties of the treaty relationship and the honour of the crown owed to Mi’kmaq People. This is consistent with the UN Standards in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
6. Take the risk of irreparable harm to an ecosystem and a people more seriously.
An irreparable harm of a species and territory is an irreparable harm to the rights of the Mi’kmaq. We demand the highest legal test and legal duties be triggered on both the federal and provincial crown. The honour of the crown is at stake and demands immediate interventions by the Premiere of Nova Scotia, the federal Ministers of Fisheries, Indigenous Affairs, and Environment, and the Prime Minister of Canada.
7. The Mi’kmaq request protection by the crown in our continued treaty based fishing activities adjacent to the Alton Gas site. The honour of the crown demands nothing less. Threats of arrest or legal action are a direct violation of the Mi’kmaq covenant chain of treaties to fish unhindered. The Mi'kmaq treaties have rights to harvest but go together with the responsibility to assert the self governing role as stewards of the territory.
Recently Alton Gas threatened to sue Sipekne’katik First Nation if eel traps were not removed from the brine mixing channel associated with the project.
8. No further commercial activity take place during the next twelve months so that community-based science team can begin its science and research work. In Alton Gas’s environmental assessment there was no baseline data at the site that looks at a full year of seasonal variability in tides and salinity. One of the first goals is to establish a full year cycle of baseline data.
In an extremely grandmotherly fashion these incredible women finished their press statement by saying, “We committed and patient, so we will sit here and wait to hear back from our governments and Alton regarding our concerns and request.”
By the end of the day Premier McNeil had heard enough phone calls from water protectors and from journalists that he put out this underwhelming but unsurprising statement.