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Mi’kmaq scholar Daniel Paul on the Boat Harbour closure

Premier McNeil’s decision to uphold Boat Harbour Act marks an important shift.

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Boat Harbour
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In the week before Christmas, many Nova Scotians were filled with uncertainty and dread in the lead-up to premier Stephen McNeil's Boat Harbour decision, but Daniel Paul wasn't one of them.

The 81-year-old Mi'kmaq elder and author says he wasn't surprised when the premier, despite pleas from mill executives and forestry workers, said he would enforce legislation that requires the Northern Pulp mill to stop pumping effluent into Boat Harbour near Pictou by January 31, 2020.

In the four decades he's been following the saga of Boat Harbour and advocating for the rights of Pictou Landing First Nation, Paul has watched successive governments promise to change things—but in the end, they all allowed Northern Pulp to keep polluting the lagoon.

He told The Coast that McNeil's decision marks an important shift.

"It's finally demonstrating to the Mi'kmaq of Nova Scotia that perhaps we can put some trust in what the governments are telling us."

Without Boat Harbour and without a ready alternative, the Northern Pulp mill will close. And by the premier's own admission, that could be the start of hard times for hundreds of mill workers in Pictou County and thousands of other mill-dependent workers across the province. To help with the change, McNeil's Liberal government is preparing to spend $50 million on the transition away from the mill.

When announcing his decision on December 20, the premier said he knew the news "could not come at a worse time" for workers at the mill, at sawmills across Nova Scotia, private woodlot owners and all those who work in the forest sector.

But for Paul, it was good news: "I think it's wonderful that Boat Harbour is finally going to meet its Waterloo as a toxic-waste lagoon."

In 1981, Paul was working for what is now the department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs when Raymond Francis, then-chief of Pictou Landing, approached him for help on the Boat Harbour issue.

As Paul wrote in his book, We Were Not the Savages, he was "appalled" to learn that bureaucrats from his own department, 20 years earlier, had encouraged the people of Pictou Landing to give up some of their reserve land for use by a new mill.

"Without conscience these bureaucrats brazenly informed the People that the harbour's water would remain so unpolluted that it would support freshwater fish, and that they would still be able to use it for fishing, swimming and other recreational activities."

Soon after the mill opened, Paul wrote, those assertions were proven wrong: "The befouling of their formerly pristine natural harbour and the stench, noise and fumes emitted from the pulp mill and the effluent were almost unbearable for most of the Band members.

"The suicide rate increased dramatically and a good many moved away in despair of their community ever becoming an environmentally safe place to live again. Most, however, stayed and suffered."

The premier acknowledged past governments' targeted efforts against Pictou Landing, saying he believed the mill's waste-treatment site was placed in Boat Harbour "because it was next to an Aboriginal community." He compared the situation to other instances of environmental racism in Nova Scotia's past, including the placement of dumps next to African Nova Scotian communities.

"Somehow our ancestors thought that was OK. It's not today. Nor is it OK to allow Boat Harbour to continue."

Paul says that attitude, from McNeil and others, is what made him confident Boat Harbour would close.

"A lot of people in Nova Scotia, including the premier, I think have come to grips with the fact that racism did a lot of harm to the Mi'kmaq people over a long period of time." 

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