They call themselves water protectors but have been labelled as protesters and property occupiers.
Three grandmothers vowed Thursday to stay put by the gate to the Alton Gas site even as the application for a permanent injunction against them slowly wound its way through the Nova Scotia Supreme Court.
“We’re not protesters,” said Madonna Bernard, one of three women occupying the straw-bale house constructed by the company’s main gate to the 16-hectare work site on Riverside Road, near Fort Ellis, Colchester County.
“We’re not blocking anything, we’re protecting the land, we’re protecting the water against these corporations that come in to try to poison the water.”
The women’s presence at the gate provides opposition to a project designed to draw nearly 10,000 cubic metres of water daily from the adjacent Shubenacadie River estuary and push it through a 12-kilometre underground pipeline to a second 80-hectare construction site off Brentwood Road, near Alton. There, the water will be pumped nearly 1,000 metres underground to flush out salt to create two caverns with a combined storage capacity of about four billion cubic feet of natural gas. The brine created by the salt dissolution will then be pumped back to the estuary for release into the tidal river system, a gradual discharge of 1.3 million cubic metres of salt over a two- to three-year period.
Standing their ground
The trio includes Darlene Gilbert, who passionately voiced her opposition to the project to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau when he visited Halifax last week. The three grandmothers and others are picking up the torch from Dale Andrew Poulette, who lived at the company site for nearly two years, and his partner, Rachael Greenland-Smith. The company, a subsidiary of AltaGas, was granted a temporary injunction by the Supreme Court on March 18 to have Poulette, Greenland-Smith and others and their belongings moved away from the main gate to a protest area designated by the company.
About 30 metres beyond the main gate along Riverside Road, a rough 875-square-metre patch of ground has been fenced in as the protest area.
“When they were building the fence, I was sick to my stomach,” said Bernard, comparing the enclosure to a Second World War interment camp.
“We’ll stand our ground here,” she said.
“There is no way they are getting us in that fenced area. I’m not moving and I know a few others who are not moving from this gate. They are not going to put us that playpen.”
The court order issued earlier this week to enforce the injunction and signs on the enclosure fencing state that protesters can use the designated area during daylight hours and that alcohol and drugs are prohibited.
“The protest area is being prepared,” said Lori MacLean, a company spokeswoman. The inference is that the women can stay on at the straw-bale house until work on the designated area is complete.
“The decision by the court means people trespassing, including those named in the injunction and others having notice of the order, must leave or go to the protest area,” a statement on the company website reads. “Moving forward, access to the work site is open only to approved Alton staff and contractors.”
And Moir said in granting the temporary injunction that “in this present motion, there is no evidence to support the occupation of Fort Ellis lands by Mr. Poulette, Ms Greenland-Smith or others.”
That means the bale house built by Poulette in the fall of 2017 on company property without company permission would have to go.
'just another part of their assimilation'
Bernard said being ushered to a designated protest area would be like a “slap in the face.”
“They placed us in residential schools, reserve lands. This is just another part of their assimilation. We are a sovereign people and we have always been a sovereign people. Canada has no title to the land, they have no proof of title to the land. We never ceded land anywhere.”
Lawyer Andrea MacNevin said she wasn’t prepared to make such an argument Thursday at Supreme Court, where Justice Moir set aside Aug. 12 to 14 to hear the application for a permanent injunction. Moir asked MacNevin, who recently took over the injunction file defence from Ecojustice lawyer James Gunvaldsen Klaassen, if she was prepared to go down the full-blown Aboriginal title road.
“Typically, a full-blown Aboriginal title claim would come in the form of an action where representatives of the Aboriginal community would bring a claim in title before the court,” MacNevin said outside court.
“This is not that situation. This is a situation where there are two respondents who are defending an action in trespass and one of the defences in trespass is to hold better title than the person who is claiming the trespass.”
MacNevin said a permanent injunction is not ensured just because a temporary one has been granted.
“I think there is some shift in when is the right time to award inequitable relief when you are considering competing rights like Indigenous interests, especially in this era of reconciliation.”
Poulette, a Mi’kmaq man in his early 30s who is originally from Eskasoni in Cape Breton, was accused of intimidating company employees and denying them access to the site in affadavit information introduced at the temporary conjunction hearing.
“The company comes to this court without clean hands,” Poulette said after court Thursday. “They have an industrial approval that is not valid, in my opinion. They have to be in compliance with federal (Environment) regulations. They were never in compliance to begin with. The current design plan can’t get checked off by the provincial (Environment) minister without being in compliance.
“This company has been misleading and falsifying information to the public for the past six to 12 years and I don’t believe that their industrial approval is valid.”
Poulette said he has been hunting, fishing and living in the woods and hasn’t been back to the Alton site since the injunction was granted.
Despite the injunction, Bernard said everything the water protectors does is legal.
“I will not let that happen for my grandchildren’s sake or anybody’s, your grandchildren or your great-grandchildren,” she said of the Mi’kmaq contention that the brine injection will pollute the river, killing fish, other marine life and destroying marine habitat.
The company counters that it has already had two environmental assessments and that the brine release will be within the normal range of salinity in the tidal river and will not have an impact on the river ecosystem.