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The fight to keep a pulp mill from poisoning the Northumberland Strait

A Mi’kmaq fisherman arrives in Pictou Harbour to protest the pulp mill’s plan to dump millions of litres of effluent daily into the ocean. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

Justin Trudeau likes to say he’s a torchbearer for the environment.

The prime minister also claims he’s a champion of Indigenous peoples.

And he is every bit of that — on paper.

But he risks becoming the Pontius Pilate of the Environment and another double-talking Indian agent if he doesn’t change his tune on Boat Harbour.

Admittedly, it is not a comfortable spotlight for any politician.

There is no monster project to announce in this tiny slice of rural, seaside Nova Scotia. There is no LNG Canada deal bringing a $40 billion investment into the country — the sort of thing that lights up a press conference and a campaigning politician’s eyes.

There are just two desperate, defiant communities here in need of help: the fisherman of Northumberland Strait and the members of Pictou Landing First Nation. They have come together over a mutual threat. Both have solid reasons to fear that power politics and pollution may be about to overwhelm them.

It comes down to this: After years of receiving industrial scale effluent from the local kraft pulp mill, Boat Harbour is scheduled to be closed by the provincial government. That means the company, Northern Pulp, must come up with a new treatment plan for its effluent.

Though no formal plan has been filed by the company, the proposal for now is to build a 10 km, $19 million pipe and dump the treated sludge from the mill directly into the Northumberland Strait.

A lighthouse looks out over the Northumberland Strait near the Confederation Bridge. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

Northern Pulp has committed to a new $70 million oxygen delignification system to improve the quality of the effluent it wants to discharge into the Strait. Fishermen and First Nations peoples are adamant that the idea is a bad one, and with good reason.

Parts of this once stunning estuary in Pictou County have already become a national disgrace. According to people who live here, the affected areas are in the same league as the poisoned tailing ponds of the Alberta tar sands and the Sydney tar ponds on Cape Breton. What was once a tidal bay supporting a variety of marine life is now a toxic lake. One resident described Boat Harbour as being “the colour of Pepsi.”

“Boat Harbour is as dead as a door nail. Black, dead water. I wouldn’t stick my finger — or anything else in it,” Merigomish resident, and longtime lobster fishermen, Percy Hayne told iPolitics.

On first seeing it, Green Party leader Elizabeth May described it as “a sulphurous, festering pond, steaming and clotted with sludge around the edges.”

The prime minister recently came to Nova Scotia to announce the twinning of a highway and snap the usual selfies. When asked if he was sidestepping the mess at Boat Harbour, Trudeau brushed off reporters. “That is me respecting areas of provincial jurisdiction,” he quipped.

There are those who beg to differ.

Hayne, citing lessons learned from decades on the stern of a boat, was categorical that Trudeau has it wrong.

“I’ve been around the fishery for 40 years. Of course it’s federal jurisdiction, no doubt in my mind. How that idea popped out of the friggin’ basket is beyond me. Go out and do something wrong in the fishery and who charges you? The federal government charges you, that’s who. Trudeau should be ashamed. This is not a pipe that becomes a problem when it ruptures, like the ones they worry about out West. This is a pipe designed to pollute prime fishing grounds.”

Brian Hebert is the lawyer for the Pictou Landing First Nation.

For 17 fruitless years he has tried to negotiate a solution to the Boat Harbour debacle with various governments. Five different provincial governments and political parties of every stripe have promised to close or clean it up.

No one has delivered.

Despite Trudeau’s renunciation of federal jurisdiction, Hebert points out that there are clear legal grounds for Ottawa to step in.

“If you look at the test for a federal assessment, there’s certainly potential for harm to Pictou Landing First Nation, under their treaty rights. That triggers the federal jurisdiction,” he said.

“But there is also the public outcry given what’s at stake. The very fact that it is interprovincial and a significant number of people are opposed to this, that would clearly be enough for the feds to accept some jurisdiction.”

So why would the prime minister take a pass on getting involved in preventing Boat Harbour 2.0?

Hebert has a theory.

“I would have to say that if the decision is that they’re not going to get involved, that they will rely on Nova Scotia, that is purely political. It is a Liberal federal government staying out of the way of a Liberal provincial government.”

Trudeau is not the only member of the government whose response has been underwhelming.

Just a few weeks ago, federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna paid a visit to Nova Scotia. She was invited by Chief Andrea Paul of the Pictou Landing First Nation to visit Boat Harbour to see and smell for herself what the band has been living with for 50 years.

McKenna, who was in Nova Scotia for the G7 environment and energy ministers’ meetings, went missing in action on the issue. She thanked the chief for her invitation, and explained why she wouldn’t be coming: “Unfortunately, as a result of scheduling constraints, I am unable to accept your invitation.”

There was no mention in the minister’s letter about setting another date.

Despite being too busy to visit Boat Harbour, McKenna did find time during her trip to tour national parks for photo-ops. The snaps were lovely, but the minister’s priorities didn’t impress citizens who were expecting something better from her than pretty pictures.

Joan Baxter, the author of “The Mill: Fifty Years of Pulp and Protest,” an award-winning book about Boat Harbour, said McKenna’s decision was “very disappointing,” and “a slap in the face” to Pictou Landing First Nation.

Chief Paul agreed.

“Minister McKenna, they say that Mi’Kmaq people are too nice. It’s time we stopped being so damned nice,” she told iPolitics. “You need to listen to the people. We’ve been here and we’ve suffered long enough. We need to bring some calm back into our world.”

It is a world that needs a lot of calming. The first time Clean the Mill activist Dave Gunning saw Boat Harbour, he cried.

Like lobster fisherman Percy Hayne, Gunning was appalled by the defilement of air, land and water. Over the years, it has had five different owners, the latest being the super-wealthy Widjaja family of Indonesia.

The mill was originally intended to operate for 20 years. Thirty years beyond its expected lifespan, it is still producing kraft pulp, clouds of smoke and toxic effluent. The plant is so old that Gunning said connecting it to a new treatment system is like putting “a solid gold muffler on a jalopy.”

“For years they ran with no filtration on their stacks, nothing on their boilers,” he said. “And for decades, there were no regulations on dumping the sludge into the ocean.”

As the treatment site for Northern Pulp’s mill on Abercrombie Point, the once pristine waters of Boat Harbour have undergone a terrible transformation.

“The treatment facility is dead water. Where the treated effluent goes, 30