Peace and Friendship on the Sipekne’katik River

by Sadie Beaton

** This article originally appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of the Ecology Action Centre’s Ecology & Action magazine **

Under a growing slab of Fundy mud on the banks of the Sipekne’katik (Shubenacadie) River, carefully placed eel traps are fossilizing, becoming artifacts. Mi’kmaw Water Protectors set the traps into the river with love and prayer last summer, as others worked to build a “Truckhouse” in accordance with the Peace and Friendship Treaties.

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Eel trap waiting to be set in the Sipekne’katik River, Summer 2016 | Photo: Sadie Beaton

The eel traps were set into a diverted section of the river created as a crude “mixing channel” by Alberta-based natural gas company AltaGas last summer. AltaGas proposes to drill a series of salt caverns underground on unceded Mi’kmaw territory to store natural gas and dump the briny mine waste through a pipeline into the Sipekne’katik River.

The Alton Gas project poses serious risks to the river ecosystem and threatens the health, livelihoods and rights of Mi’kmaw communities as well as the safety of living near the cavern site. Neither Mi’kmaq nor non-indigenous communities were meaningfully included in the decision to approve this project, and many have voiced serious concerns about potential impacts.

Resistance to Alton Gas has anchored itself in the Peace and Friendship Treaties. These treaties (one of which was signed along the Sipekne’katik River) never ceded title of the land and waters to colonial forces and guaranteed Mi’kmaq people the liberty to hunt and fish as usual. The treaties also made provisions for a Truckhouse to meet and trade fish and other goods on the Sipekne’katik River or any place of their usual resort.

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Row boat used by the Truckhouse resistance, Summer 2016 | Photo: Sadie Beaton

Last summer, Mi’kmaw people and allies worked together to build a Truckhouse on the banks of the river adjacent to the Alton Gas site. It was the first to be built in many decades and serves the clever purpose of ensuring treaty-protected access to the river for everyone. Along with the eel traps, the Truckhouse demonstrates tangible resistance to Alton Gas and provides space for Mi’kmaw people and allies to explore how we can work together in peace and friendship.

As part of my role with the Community Conservation Research Network, I have been lucky to participate as an ally in the ceremony and resistance that is working to build treaty relationships on the bank of the Sipekne’katik River. The following excerpts come from interviews and conversations with Nova Scotia Museum Curator of Ethnography and Sipekne’katik First Nation band member Roger Lewis, Unamaki Treaty Scholar Kevin Christmas, and Sipekne’katik District War Chief Jim Maloney.

Pre-contact, most Mi’kmaq [communities] were situated on our primary rivers. We have forty-something primary rivers in the province of Nova Scotia and Mi’kmaw people were basically on them all. They were autonomous, individual kind of governments or institutions based along the river systems.

— Roger Lewis,
Nova Scotia Museum Curator of Ethnography and Sipekne’katik First Nation band member

Now you have to remember that the river system from Dartmouth right down to Minas is one whole river system and all of the estuaries and everything else that flow from that system are all connected. It was to us a superhighway back before settlement occurred. It was the principal means by which our people provided for themselves. It was the centre of our livelihood. It was the centre of our identity and our way of life.

— Kevin Christmas, Unamaki Treaty Scholar

So [Mi’kmaw communities] are living on rivers and all of a sudden the Europeans show up here. Mi’kmaq were well aware of trade before the French came here to settle, because they were trading with the Basque and other people who were fishing off the coast. [Even] when the French and English politics shifted, the Mi’kmaq were still enjoying access to traditional lands. But after the expulsion of the Acadians, when they were bringing in the Planters and the Loyalists, there became an increased demand for land. A lot of those lands were critical to Mi’kmaw people, so that’s when you started to see conflict.

— Roger Lewis,
Nova Scotia Museum Curator of Ethnography and Sipekne’katik First Nation band member

[In Sipekne’katik district] we were the expressway people. It was the interstate. When the British were fighting the Mi’kmaq here in Chebucto Head, here in the Dartmouth-Halifax area, they couldn’t understand how they could be fighting the same guys the very next day in the Bay of Fundy, because they would travel the Sipekne’katik River on the tide and they’d be there before the ships came around. They couldn’t understand the speed. The [Peace and Friendship] Treaties were actually signed with the Sipekne’katik district. We’re the treaty holders. And the government is actually in Sipekne’katik district, in Halifax.

— Jim Maloney, Sipekne’katik District War Chief 

Mi’kmaw people were militarily the reason for these Peace and Friendship agreements, because the Mi’kmaq were still a military threat here. They had to assure Mi’kmaq that nothing was going to change, that things were going to be as they were in the ancient past. The beauty of our Peace and Friendship treaties was that they never ceded land. So as long as they could keep the peace and be on good behaviour and not be molested, the British were happy with that.

— Roger Lewis,
Nova Scotia Museum Curator of Ethnography and Sipekne’katik First Nation band member

The Shubenacadie River fed our people. But [in the late 1700s] the government made it illegal for us to fish there, and this went on for years. I mean, we had to have permission to leave the reservation. Up to 1954 you couldn’t hire a lawyer, and it was against the law for a lawyer to represent Aboriginal rights. You couldn’t buy land, as a Mi’kmaw–well, I agree with that because we own it anyway–but it gives you an idea when you are cast aside like that while they are giving out land like they’re giving out lunch. They were giving out 200 acres, 400 acres for service people, just for showing up.

— Jim Maloney, Sipekne’katik District War Chief 

Now if you go back and look at all Mi’kmaw petitions through the 1700s and 1800s, they are always in reference to those promises that the Crown made [to allow Mi’kmaw people] to hunt, fish, and live unmolested. Then, all of a sudden, they came up with a new colonial policy in the 1800s that was the establishment of reserves. Because now they had an “Indian problem.” “What are we Europeans going to do with all of these Indians that we’ve dislocated from their traditional lands?” In three decades from 1783-1820 they were completely shut off from their lands. I have to laugh when people say, “I learned this word, ‘environmental racism,’” like it is a 1990s-2000s phenomenon, right? Environmental racism, really, dates back to those Indian reserves. Provincial statutes are coming into place where they say, “You can’t dam rivers, you can’t fish in them, you can only hunt one caribou and one moose.” Now Mi’kmaw people are saying, “I can’t feed my family on one moose or one caribou. I can’t fish my weirs anymore. You’ve deprived me of these resources I’ve been dependent on for thousands and thousands of years.” After 1821 the bottom falls out of the social structure and the Mi’kmaw structure basically collapses.

— Roger Lewis,
Nova Scotia Museum Curator of Ethnography and Sipekne’katik First Nation band member

So it was a big a day when we put those traps in there and set up the Treaty Truckhouse. Everybody was there hammering nails, right? Native and non-native. That strong push came as a result of a lot of support from our alliances. So there was confidence there that The Department of Fisheries and Oceans or the RCMP wouldn’t come in like they did in Burnt Church, like they did in Elsipogtog, like in the St. Mary’s Digby area, because there is a lot more political power allying with non-natives than we would have had by ourselves. The alliance process is very empowering for all of us, because we have the treaty and inherent right, and the allied groups are supporting that.

— Jim Maloney, Sipekne’katik District War Chief 

Meanwhile, some say the mighty Sipekne’katik River has her own plans for asserting the Peace and Friendship treaties. As the Fundy tides have moved back and forth through Alton Gas’ “mixing channel,” the traps have been catching layer after layer of mud.
In fact, the entire mixing channel filled in over a few months. As Truckhouse Water Protectors describe, “The River has healed herself.”

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Raising the Mi’kmaq Flag at the Truckhouse site with ceremony and song, Summer 2016 | Photo: Sadie Beaton

Nonetheless, the work of asserting Peace and Friendship Treaties along the Sipek’nekatik is far from over. Along with the Nova Scotia Government, Alton Gas continues to ignore calls for meaningful engagement with Mi’kmaw communities and still intends to begin
dumping brine waste this spring. As such, there will continue to be an important role for non-indigenous allies to stand with and amplify the voices of Water Protectors and Treaty Defenders.

Let’s imagine a future when we are living in peace and friendship here in Mi’kma’ki. Someday archaeologists will dig up the Sipekne’katik eel traps and mount them in a Museum of Environmental Justice. Picture interpretive signs telling the incredible story of how Mi’kmaw culture resisted 500 years of colonisation, and even helped non-indigenous Nova Scotians learn how to build alliances and live in peace and friendship with one another and with the River herself.

Sadie Beaton researches environmental justice issues through her work with the Community Conservation Research Network at the Ecology Action Centre. She would like to express her utmost gratitude to the countless inspiring water, land, and treaty defenders on the Sipekne’katik Riverbank and beyond, and especially to Roger Lewis, Kevin Christmas, and Jim Maloney for sharing their words here. Another round of thanks goes out to Christen Kong and Robin Tress. Stay tuned for Season 2 of the Shades of Green podcast, featuring these voices and more at shadesofgreenweb.wordpress.com.

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