Past to present: Pictou Landing residents remember swimming in Boat Harbour

Published on June 15, 2014
Roderick Francis was among more than a dozen residents who used to swim in Boat Harbour. He said there are only five of them remaining. 

PICTOU LANDING - As Sarah Clark returned from a trip from Moncton last week, she rolled down her window when she reached Pictou Landing to tell the protestors she would be joining them soon. 

The 58-year-old began to cry when it hit her that there was no smell from Northern Pulp.

“I never thought I’d see that day again,” she said, adding that she last smelled fresh air in Pictou County in the 1960’s.

When the mill was running last week, before a broken effluent pipeline forced it to close, the odor was a pale comparison to when the kraft pulp mill first opened, under the ownership of Scott Paper, she said.

She remembers seeing buildings turn black and paint peeling off homes.

“If it’s affecting buildings that way, what is it doing to our lungs?” she asked while on site of the blockade at Indian Cross Point.

She and others, including Roderick Francis, used to swim at A’Se’K, also known as Boat Harbour, as children in the late 1960’s.

Francis said they were told by the government of the day that it was safe to swim.

Clark noticed it was black, but figured if others were in it, then it must be okay.

It wasn’t until she noticed eels coming to shore that she began to question it.

“If fish are running from it, there must be something wrong,” she thought at age 12.

They were also eating berries and apples along the road leading up to the beach, digging for clams and fishing.

Eventually, they all stopped swimming there, as well as another local beach, one that was as popular as Melmerby Beach is now, as the water began to change colour, she said.

“There’s only four or five of us left that swam in that effluent,” Francis, 59, said, adding that there had been 10 others who had also played in the water.

Scott Paper began discussions in 1964 about building a mill at Abercrombie Point with the agreement that the province would provide a place to put the wastewater after it was used in the pulping process.

It started operating in 1967.

Almost ten years later, Pictou Landing First Nation took action against the federal government for inaction in the community’s best interests.

In 1991, the federal government started negotiations for a settlement. In the same year, the province promised to close Boat Harbour as a treatment facility after the wastewater agreement with Scott Paper expired in 1995.

“I heard it very often. When the PCs (Progressive Conservatives) were in power, I heard it every month,” Francis, a former band chief, said about how many times he heard Boat Harbour would be cleaned.

Clark left a few years after the mill was established in 1975, moving to Massachusetts, and ended up working in a paper mill.

She came back in the early 1990’s after her husband passed and her mother was sick.

By 1993, an agreement was reached out of court, promising $35 million in compensation.

The Scott Paper agreement ran out in 1995, but no alternative site for wastewater had been chosen, with the province extending the timeline to close Boat Harbour by 2005.

The mill transferred hands twice over the next 10 years and possible solutions were deemed unfeasible, prompting another extension to 2008.

During this time, Clark was researching what was coming out of pulp mills while she was studying at Nova Scotia Community College. She did a presentation on it in 2006, explaining the bleaching process.

In 2008, the province agreed to extend the license on a month-to-month basis. The mill was transferred to Northern Pulp, and the province asked the community to let it go, and said they wouldn’t extend it beyond Dec. 31 without consultation. However, by November, they told the province they would not agree to any more extensions.

An election halted meetings with a negotiator and new government officials asked for more time to examine the issues.

In September 2010, a lawsuit was filed against the province and Northern Pulp, following a lack of change after a request from Pictou Landing asking the province to end the license by June 30, 2010.

Since then, the permit has continually been renewed, during which time Northern Pulp was acquired by Paper Excellence and a Facebook group pushing for a cleaner mill started gaining traction.