Plans to flush out salt caverns for gas storage hit a wall of Mi’kmaq grandmothers
Cheryl Maloney’s eyes filled with tears as she stood by the bank of the Stewiacke River in mid-Nova Scotia. The news was finally starting to fall. Behind her, a hundred people were filling plates with spaghetti and fried chicken; the crowd included his 11-year-old grandson, Drake Nevin, one of many children who had spent most of their childhood fighting alongside the elders to protect this river system. She saw the driftnets – the white fishermen who catch shad in these waters – reminiscing, and the amber leaves floating on the water like confetti.
Two weeks earlier, Alton Gas, a subsidiary of AltaGas of Calgary, had abandoned a project that would have pumped 10,000 cubic meters of brine into the mouth of this river every day for a decade, leaving caverns behind. underground where the company planned to store natural gas. It had been seven years since Maloney and a handful of other Mi’kmaq grandmothers painted their first picket sign saying “Stop Alton Gas.”
There had been a “slowdown” of the highway, where protesters handed out leaflets denouncing the project. There had been a threat of civil suit, a court injunction against protesters, arrests, lawsuits, rulings and appeals. Elders had died and babies were born. Finally, the company tapped into it, posting a statement on its website lamenting that “the project has received mixed support, challenges, and delays.”
It was a momentous victory for an Indigenous community at a time when pipeline protests have led to clashes with police and controversial arrests of First Nations protesters and journalists. Unlike Wet’suwet’en territory in northwestern British Columbia, the locally elected chief and band of the Sipekne’katik First Nation supported this struggle, as did many local non-Indigenous residents. For Maloney, the widespread support reflected “the true spirit of reconciliation.”
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The Stewiacke River meanders through forest, farmland and villages, including a Mi’kmaq community that is part of the Sipekne’katik Nation. It eventually empties into the Shubenacadie River, which empties into the Bay of Fundy between Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. Twice a day, a nearly four-story wave of seawater – the highest tide in the world – crashes into the rivers, causing them both to reverse course.
Alton Gas hoped to take advantage of this mixing effect. The company planned to pump water from the Shubenacadie about 12 km inland to flush out up to 15 natural underground salt deposits, creating huge caverns to store natural gas. The resulting brine would be dumped into the Shubenacadie, whose already brackish waters push into the Stewiacke as the tide rises. reliable way to provide affordable gasoline to Nova Scotians.
Maloney, a former national environmental coordinator for the Native Women’s Association of Canada, was sitting behind the bar in her playroom overlooking the river when her brother, Lefty Paul, first told her about it. She was stunned. The estuary is home to endangered striped bass. She feared the project would pollute groundwater and the river system that the Mi’kmaq had depended on for millennia.
“You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know it’s no good,” Maloney says. “They were going to use our little province as a guinea pig.
Maloney posted notices on social media to help plan the first day of resistance, and one blustery morning in October 2014 she and a few others arrived at the Alton site. “Am I crazy?” she remembers thinking. “Will anyone introduce themselves?” People will probably hate us. But elders began to arrive, along with driftnet fishermen, older non-native men who opposed the project. A hundred people climbed the steep bank of Route 102 with signs painted red: “Stop Alton Gas” and “Protect our rivers” and “500,000 dump trucks of salt too much”.
Maloney, who has a law degree, knew the next steps had to be strategic. She helped organize a group to fish for eels at the site — a Mi’kmaq treaty right affirmed in two Supreme Court decisions — elevating the issue from an environmental cause to a constitutional one. With each roadblock, she became more tactical.
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When Alton created a new island in the river by digging a channel, the members started fishing there. When the company threatened to sue the band council for loss of revenue due to Maloney’s efforts to shut down the project, Maloney, Sipekne’katik’s councilor at the time, resigned her seat so she could continue. the protest as a private band member.
When Alton put up “No Trespassing” signs, the Mi’kmaq and non-Indigenous allies built a “roadhouse,” a place of commerce protected by a centuries-old treaty.
The band ultimately challenged the province’s decision in 2016 to grant industrial approval to Alton, arguing that the Mi’kmaq had not been sufficiently consulted on issues that could affect their treaty rights. In March 2020, a Nova Scotia judge ruled in favor of the First Nation.
The site will be decommissioned, but the barter house will remain: it is now a sacred place of education, healing and meeting, and a reminder of the struggle of grandmothers.
Back at the river park, the shadows of the pines grew taller and the last bites of cake were eaten. Maloney returned with a dozen other grandmothers and supporters to her playroom, where it all started. They filled their cups with black tea, lit a bonfire outside, and continued the party.
This article appears in print in the February 2022 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the title “Brain over brine”. Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.