For the Grassroots Grandmothers, protecting the Sipekne’katik River in Nova Scotia is a seven-generation calling.
Intro & photos—Carolina Andrade
In the language of the Mi’kmaw people who have lived along the northeast coast of North America for thousands of years, L’nu is a term of identity for those who live in accordance with the Creator’s Original Instructions. It means “the people,” but it also signifies “a deeper meaning of being a true human,” says Michelle Paul, a Mi’kmaw Water Protector from the Sipekne’katik District.
Paul is a close collaborator of the Grassroots Grandmothers, a group of Mi’kmaw activists whose singular calling for the last seven years has been to embody the L’nu way by fighting to protect the Sipekne’katik (Shubenacadie) River from a dangerous plan to store natural gas near its shores. “What we are doing here in our resistance is redefining and reshaping our future, and taking it into our own hands,” she explains.
“Our very survival is hinged on where we go from here.”
In 2007 Alton Gas received approval from the province of Nova Scotia to store up to 10 billion cubic feet of natural gas in artificial caverns near the Sipekne’katik River. The river has long served as a source of food, medicine, travel, livelihood, and ceremony for many Indigenous peoples across Mi’kma’ki, which encompasses all the Maritime provinces and parts of Québec and Maine. To create the caverns, the company plans to use water from the river to flush out vast underground salt deposits and then pump the heavily brined water back into the river. At its peak, the project would deposit up to 3,000 tonnes of hard salt into the river each day over a period of several years.
The plan poses a serious threat to the natural ecosystem, which includes spawning grounds and habitat for species like tommy cod, striped bass, endangered Atlantic salmon, and eel. The concentration of brine released into the river would be six times what Environment and Climate Change Canada considers deleterious to wildlife. The project also threatens workers and nearby communities: serious problems are not uncommon with underground natural gas storage. Over the last two decades, 65 per cent of salt cavern storage facilities in the United States have had at least one incident, including events that have resulted in catastrophic property loss, large fires and explosions, mass evacuations, and deaths.
The Grassroots Grandmothers have been practising their sovereign right to protect the river from potential harm caused by the Alton Gas project since 2014.
They have been gathering near the brining site in a small building called the Treaty Truckhouse, which was built on the basis of clause #4 in the 1752 Peace and Friendship Treaty. The clause permits L’nu people to hunt, fish, and establish Truckhouses along the Sipekne’katik River at their own discretion and with free liberty.
“We know how powerful our Treaty rights are,” says Wowkwis Ku’ku’kwes (Madonna Bernard), one of the Grandmothers. “We know how powerful those words are: unceded territories. Those words are very powerful in the political system, and they can’t take that away from us.” Following an appeal by the Sipekne’katik First Nation based on a lack of consultation, the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia delayed the project in 2017.
But two years later, the project’s approval was sustained with a few modifications, prompting the Sipekne’katik First Nation to appeal the decision once again. They are still waiting on the court’s decision. In 2019 three Grassroots Grandmothers were arrested at the gates of the Alton brining site, where they had established a straw-bale house while resisting an injunction order against their presence on unceded territory. The shelter was demolished the following day, turning a place that symbolized sovereignty into a scene of discrimination for the L’nu’k people. In March of this year, the Nova Scotia Supreme Court ordered the province to renew consultations with Sipekne’katik First Nation.
According to Dr. Ingrid Waldron, author of There’s Something in the Water, the Alton Gas plan fits the pattern of environmental racism, whereby projects that involve environmental risk are disproportionately located in Indigenous, Black, and other racialized communities.
These communities often lack political power to stop big industries and overturn policies that allow harmful projects to be placed in their communities.
For this photographic essay, L’nu’skw (L’nu woman) and Indigenous rights advocate Hannah Martin asked the Grandmothers about their relationship to the water and why they fight for the river. While the answer is tied to their identity as L’nuk women, their message is for everybody. “We want people to understand the underlying purpose of water protection,” says Paul. “It’s for everybody. It’s not a Mi’kmaw issue, it’s a human issue.”
WHAT DO WE VALUE?
Michelle Paul says that the river has served both as a highway and a grocery store for her people from time immemorial to the present day. The river is sacred, she says, and protecting the water is intrinsic to their identity as Mi’kmaw women.
“What do we value in society? We’ve taken the stance as Mi’kmaw women that we value the future, the unborn, we value the water, we value all the things of Creation that give us sustenance, we value that spiritual connection and we honour it.”
Wowkwis Ku’ku’kwes (Madonna Bernard) says that it’s in the DNA of the L’nu people to stand up for what’s right for Mother Earth: “We feel the earth, we feel the environment, we feel the water, the land that we live on.” She stays grounded through ceremony, laying tobacco, smudging, praying, and thinking about her children and grandchildren. In the summer, she goes out on the land to breathe the air and sing.
“We do this for the next seven generations to come. We’re constantly protecting and constantly working with Mother Earth to protect her, because we have to. For our children and our grandchildren.”
Marian Nicholas is a warrior. She joined the Mohawk Resistance at Kanesatake in Québec in 1990, and she protested shale gas fracking with other Indigenous land defenders in Rexton, New Brunswick, in 2013. Her focus now is helping the other Grandmothers. “That’s what I’m there for,” she says. “I’m out there making a fire when they need them.”
“I do come down here a lot by myself sometimes. I put the fire on and turn the little radio on over there and just, you know, chill. I’m a rock thrower, so you’ll catch me throwing rocks in the water. One of these days the water is gonna throw it back to me, you know.”
WHO I AM
The first time Ducie Howe joined a rally on behalf of the river in 2014, all the signs had been taken, so she was told to make her own. Nobody had any markers, so she went to her car and picked up a bingo dauber. Then she picked up a piece of bristol board and wrote: I was not consulted.
“I am a Water Walker and a Water Protector. Water is sacred no matter where it is or what way it is travelling: down the mountain, through the rivers, through the brooks, into the lakes, under the ground, and into the ocean. It’s the same water that’s always been here. It’s the same water that my ancestors drank and were born in, and my kids were born in, and the future generations will be born in. When I cross over to where my ancestors are and I’m asked, ‘Who are you?’ and ‘What have you done here on earth?’, I want to be able to tell them who I am.”
— Ducie Howe
A HEALING PLACE
Dorene Bernard says that the wellness of the Mi’kmaq is deeply connected to the water. The river has always been a lifeline for her people, bringing food and trade and medicine and life for “everything we need to survive.”
“It is a sacred place, when we do our ceremonies at the water to call our ancestors to help us and to protect the land and waters, and to guide us and walk with us. When we’re doing these ceremonies and praying, we’re praying for everybody—all living beings, the human family, four-legged, swimmers, flyers, crawlers, trees, plants, rocks, all creation; we are all connected. We say, ‘ Msit No’kmaq, all my relations.’ The water is healing. When we come to the water to pray, she hears us, feels us, and knows us. She is medicine and she heals us.”
POWER OF THE TIDE
Darlene Gilbert’s mother, a residential school survivor, died when she was 12 years old. Darlene was then caught up in the “Sixties Scoop,” a period in the 1960s when thousands of Indigenous children across North America were taken from their homes and adopted out to non-Indigenous families. Gilbert has since reconnected with her culture and now participates in water ceremonies along the Sipekne’katik River. She says her mother joins her at every ceremony.
“It’s the power of the tide, of the water, that is spiritual. Because when you stand or you’re lying here in the middle of the night, and you just feel that rumble, you know, the whole Treaty Truckhouse rumbles, and you can feel it coming down and you gotta get up and go and look at it, and then I can go to sleep. It’s weird. It’s just the spiritual connection of the water.”
Carolina Andrade is a Chilean Canadian photographer and writer based in K’jipuktuk (Halifax, Nova Scotia). She focuses her lens on the light within stories that encourage compassion and remind us that we are all human beings. Her work can be seen in publications including the Globe and Mail, CBC, Maclean’s, and more.
Hannah Martin is an L’nu’skw from Taqamiju’jk, Mi’kma’ki. She is a member of the We’kopekwitk (Millbrook) First Nation community and has worked with and for Indigenous peoples at the local, national, and international level. She takes great pride and humility in carrying on Mi’kmaw Knowledge and traditions.