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Undermined in the Town of Westville

How local organizers and international activists made a traditional mining town change its tune.

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A map of the proposed (and now cancelled) coal mine site on Town land in Westville. - IAN SELIG
  • ian selig
  • A map of the proposed (and now cancelled) coal mine site on Town land in Westville.

On September 30, in the town Westville, Nova Scotia—155 kilometres from Halifax—town councillor Lynn MacDonald surprised even herself when she put forward a motion to take back a proposal for exploratory coal mining on town land. She was effectively squashing a proposal that she had brought to council with a motion of support nearly a year earlier.

Her motion—unplanned and not previously announced—was quickly seconded, then swiftly supported unanimously by council. A standing ovation from the crowd of over 60 organizers, aged 50 and up—who had been coming to meetings to speak out against the plan since it was announced­—followed. Councillors and observers alike cried and hugged each other, emotional at what they knew was a ground-breaking moment.

 MacDonald had spent the previous weekend watching the news, seeing that 10,000 people had marched in Halifax for climate action—joining nearly one million people across Canada and over 7.5 million people around the world. One thought had stuck with her and led her to act: "Don't look back, you're not going that way."

"I was watching all this going on in the world, these protests about the environment. And I started to think, well, what are we doing here?" she says.

In the fall of 2018, Pioneer Coal approached the town with a proposal for a new mine, which led to Nova Scotia's Department of Energy and Mines putting out a request for proposals in April of this year.

But Westville council's decision pulled away any opportunity for the project to go forward. A spokesperson for the Department of Energy and Mines says the successful company still had to get the OK from the landowner, which in this case was the Town of Westville. "Without that agreement being in place, the project cannot proceed," the spokesperson said.

From the get-go the project was greeted with impressive opposition from community members in Westville. The sizeable, dedicated group—comprised of mostly retirees—call themselves the Concerned Citizens Committee. The group presented to the town council every month at their meetings sharing research and connecting with those most likely to be affected by the mine. An elementary school sits less than 500 metres away from the proposed site, and there is a senior's home just as close—where many residents are already suffering from respiratory issues from growing up in proximity to coal mines or working in them. The group listed health concerns, safety concerns and environmental concerns among their reasons for opposing the mine.


Clarrie MacKinnon is part of the Concerned Citizens Committee. - IAN SELIG
  • IAN SELIG
  • Clarrie MacKinnon is part of the Concerned Citizens Committee.

Clarrie MacKinnon, one of the group's organizers gives credit for the council's decision to the group's persistence—"I think we were wearing them down,"—in combination with what was happening in the world around them. Together, the impressive display at the September 20 to 27 global climate strikes and the groups' efforts had an effect that, perhaps, neither could have achieved alone.

The Halifax climate strike, led by high school students, certainly did not have the Westville mine in mind when it took to the streets, but School Strike for Climate-Halifax organizer Julia Sampson says, "It's so cool to see that what we're doing is actually affecting change."

In Westville, like greater Nova Scotia, mining has played a significant role in the history of its identity. "Coal mining put us where we are today," says MacDonald. The 3,600-population town has been a hub for coal mining in Nova Scotia since the 1860s. The town's black and white logo even shows a coal miner raising their axe under the dim light of a mine shaft.

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Reckoning with that history, while looking forward to new opportunities presents a challenge. "We all realize we have to move on, and the town is doing that," says MacDonald. "But we still give recognition to...what started this community in the first place."

The federal government has set a target to phase out traditional coal power in Canada by 2030, but Nova Scotia is dragging its feet, still negotiating its coal phase-out equivalency agreement. Right now, Nova Scotia has two coal mines still in operation, one in Donkin and one in nearby Stellarton.

MacKinnon, the son of a coal miner, says when he was a kid, he knew that the bread on the table came from coal. But, he says "there has to be a realization that we have to leave some of what exists—or, a lot of what exists—in the ground if we are going to survive."

He says looking forward, the group is in the process of changing its name to the Westville Progress Association, with hopes of seeing the land that was proposed for the mine reclaimed for something good.

Sampson says she hopes the Town of Westville's decision will be a model for other places considering similar projects. "If they used what we did as a reason for stopping something that big, then I think other places will take that seriously as well and take into consideration what we are doing—and what the world is demanding."

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