Sitting on the floor with my legs crossed, I’m surrounded by an unlikely mix of people: Mi’kmaq elders, urban youth, rural homeowners, fishers and young farmers. We’ve come together in a home in Sipekne’katik, a First Nation Reserve in Nova Scotia and the unceded territory of the Mi’kmaq people.
We’re gathered together because an Alton Gas industrial project just received permits to develop an underground natural gas storage facility nearby. The company wants to hollow out four caverns in the existing subterranean salt deposit. They plan to draw water from the Shubenacadie River, pump it underground, and then pump the resulting salt brine back into the river system before moving natural gas into the caverns for storage.
The meeting begins with a traditional water blessing ceremony led by the Grandmothers — the protectors of the water. Just a stone’s throw from where we sit, the moon sends a shimmer across the Shubenacadie River.
The river, teeming with life, connects the Halifax Harbour with the Bay of Fundy, and is home to one of the last spawning grounds for striped bass. The Mi’kmaq have relied on this river as a food source and highway since time immemorial. It has cultural and political importance I can’t begin to comprehend.
The plans to develop these caverns on the shores of the Shubenacadie have been in the making for years. But the local community only learned of the project in 2014 when, to begin construction, the land began to be stripped of its trees.
As the community researched the ways in which Alton Gas planned to use their land and water, they quickly became concerned. The project threatened groundwater sources, risked local fish populations and data collection was insufficient. The project also failed to meaningfully consult the Mi’kmaq people — a direct violation of their First Nations rights.
After intense public opposition, including a highway slowdown, the Nova Scotia government was forced to withhold permits for the project back in 2014.
Yet despite failing to address concerns raised by the local community, just weeks ago the Nova Scotia government granted Alton Gas their permits. The phone calls, emails, letters and actions taken were ignored. The information sessions involving company officials and community members went nowhere.
At a community-organized news conference at the Mi’kmaw Native Friendship Centre in Halifax a few weeks later, locals made it clear: They would not be made inconsequential by their government. Concerned people stayed up late into the night preparing appeals to meet the project’s next day deadline — a process a local resident stumbled upon by chance. If these appeals are not taken seriously by government, and the permits not permanently revoked, the community has no other choice but to protect its water through activism.
Our meeting that evening ended with an elder’s words: “We have a responsibility to protect the river. We are all treaty people.” As those words sunk in, the resolve in the room became palpable. Those words define our responsibility to honour the peace and friendship treaty that governs this land, and stand with the Mi’kmaq people to defend their water.
The David Suzuki Foundation’s Blue Dot movement is taking a stand on World Water Day, helping communities across Canada call on the federal government to make good on our human right to clean water by enacting a federal environmental bill of rights. You can take action on the right to clean water by joining our Thunderclap and writing a letter to the editor using our simple online tool.