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AULD'S COVE, NS—Upwards of 200 people, coming from all corners of Nova Scotia, responded to the imminent threat of exploratory oil and gas drilling on the shores of Lake Ainslie, and on September 22 staged an information picket outside the town of Auld's Cove.
Protestors, in this case assisted by the RCMP, created a colourful gauntlet of signs, strings of prayer flags, song and dance, through which passing motorists were directed. The action auspiciously took place on Global Anti-Fracking Day.
Despite the slow-down, motorists responded in an overwhelmingly positive manner to the action; thousands of pamphlets were distributed, and the afternoon resonated with the emphatic staccato of fists pumped to passing car horns. During the third hour of the action, in deference to a Mi'kmaq water ceremony to which all those in attendance were invited, the RCMP fully blockaded the highway—the only roadway on or off the island of Cape Breton—for about 20 minutes.
“I thought this was just going to be a bunch of raggedy-assed Indians,” said Elizabeth Marshall of the Treaty Beneficiary Association, conjuring the memory of Anna Mae Pictou-Aquash. “And you showed us that the raggedy-assed Indians have a bunch of raggedy-assed residents backing us up. We're not going to give up, because we love our ancestors, we love our future generations, and we love our children and grandchildren. And we know that water is sacred. Nothing, nothing can change that. So I'd like [Nova Scotia Premier] Darrell Dexter to tell me how much I should charge for a sacred spirit.”
The focus of the day's action, in a specific sense, was to protect Lake Ainslie, Nova Scotia's largest freshwater lake, from any and all fossil fuel drilling on her shores. Currently, the provincial government has only issued one exploratory well permit to Toronto-based company PetroWorth Resources Inc.; the company has promised no “fracing” [sic] will occur at the drill site.
Most likely the word “fracing” is referring to the technique of hydraulic fracturing, the water-intensive and often environmentally damaging technique of drilling for fossil fuels. “Fracking,” the commonly accepted slang term for the technique, has left a path of chemical pollution, sunken water tables, earthquakes and displaced residents across North America.
It is difficult to take PetroWorth, a company that has made its name fracking Western Canada and Nova Scotia's neighbouring province of New Brunswick, at its word, especially when that word appears to be knowingly misspelled. To Robert Parkins, closest neighbour to the potential drill site on the shores of Lake Ainslie, the question is one of semantics.
“There are three other terms that I've come across—well stimulation, well cleaning and well completion—which all fall under the heading of well alteration, which hydraulic fracturing also falls under,” Parkins told the Halifax Media Co-op. “They all use the same processes and the same chemicals.”
Parkins views the positioning of the site, which has been selected by PetroWorth due to various 19th-century finds of oil and gas in the area, as an attempt by the province and the corporation to force a "worst case" scenario situation. Essentially, claims Parkins, if a drill site can be established on the shores of relatively pristine Lake Ainslie, the province's largest freshwater lake, at the head of the Margaree River Watershed and with some of the last remaining viable Atlantic salmon spawning grounds in the province, then it can be done anywhere.
“It's one of the worst possible locations that you could ever put a drill site. So if they can get away with putting a drill site there, it's going to set a precedent in Nova Scotia that they can place them anywhere,” says Parkins.
It would appear that protest actions, which have included a partial blockade of the same stretch of highway on September 14 and 15, are beginning to have an effect on local Mi'kmaq chiefs.
Initially the chiefs appeared to sign off on PetroWorth's exploratory well permit, after being consulted by the provincial government. But the recent unrest, coupled with the effort of a group of local Mi'kmaq organizers who forced their way into a meeting of the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi'kmaq Chiefs (ANSMC) on September 20, has caused the chiefs to do something of a public about-face.
A press release, issued on September 21, notes that the ANSMC are “in support of the community's concerns on hydraulic fracturing in the Lake Ainslie area of Cape Breton.” The press release, while cause for some degree of hope, does not demand that PetroWorth's exploratory well permit be rescinded. Nor is it certain that the ANSMC would have to ability, without entering into the legal sphere, to literally change its stance mid-stream on the permit issuance.
Wilbert Marshall, chief of Chapel Island, was the only Mi'kmaq chief to attend the September 22 action. Judging from his response and the escalating public display of Mi'kmaq disapproval, it would appear that the ANSMC may soon be faced with that exact dilemma.
“From day one, we were totally against it,” Marshall told the Halifax Media Co-op. “It's just fighting against the government and all that, it's just kind of back door deals, and we're trying our best to fight it. I remember them coming down the first time, we were totally against it. We are totally against [all oil and gas exploration on Lake Ainslie]. We have to be, because it's going to ruin the water. It's just kind of hard to fight these people. They're always taking the back door, like we said. If it's not one thing, it's the other. It's kind of hard to keep track, but we've got the people behind us, so hopefully we'll fight it at the end of it. We're not going to give up.”
Ginny Marshall, one of the main forces behind the recent Mi'kmaq actions against the potential drill site, appeared willing to ensure that the chiefs don't “give up.”
“[The chiefs] don't have the last say,” said Ginny Marshall. “They work for us, so they better behave.”
Despite the presence of concerned citizens from all walks of life, noticeably absent from the day's action was the mainstream media.
“I'm really kind of disappointed that the mainstream media is not here,” said Emmett Peters, local sweat lodge keeper. “We had, at the peak, probably over 200 people here. And there's nobody to show the rest of Nova Scotia that there's a lot of support for protecting the water. We told them, so they know. They know we're having an event, they just chose to stay away.”
“The one thing I notice that is not standing here with us is the mainstream media,” said Parkins to the gathered crowd. “Why? Because they don't want people to know that there are over 200 of us protesting the fracking that's about to go on in Cape Breton. They want to keep people in the dark. Ladies and gentlemen, we are tired of being mushrooms. No longer can they feed us horse shit and keep us in the dark...This is enough and this is what we're here for today. We have to tell them, even though they say that there is no fracking going on in Lake Ainslie, we know that there's well stimulation, well completion and well cleaning. And we all know it's the same thing...So ladies and gentlemen, from today on when anybody says to you that there is no fracking in Lake Ainslie, you say, 'Of course there isn't, because we're not going to let it happen.'”
It would appear that perhaps PetroWorth, and the provincial NDP government, may well have bitten off more than they can chew in attempting to drill for oil and gas in Cape Breton. Since being taken to court earlier in the year, albeit unsuccessfully, by the Margaree Environmental Association, PetroWorth has seen its stock value nosedive from a November 2011 high of eight cents per share down to a current value as of press time of two cents per share. Resistance to oil and gas drilling in Cape Breton, if the weekend's demonstration are any indication, is riding a surge of energy, and organizers are already talking of following Quebec's recent provincial moratorium on fracking.
“Whatever it takes,” Ginny Marshall told the Halifax Media Co-op. “I'll die. And that's very, very—that's the wrong thing to say to stop an oil company. But if my children are going to get a benefit out of it, then I'm willing to put my life on the line in order to protect them. I'm a mother bear. It's born in me, and I will be doing what I have to do in order to get this done.”
Miles Howe is an editor with The Dominion and a member of the Halifax Media Co-op, where this article was originally published.
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.