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As part of SaltWire’s Deep Dives, we’ve been getting to the heart of the issues that matter to Atlantic Canadians. This story, as part of our look at Indigenous successes, examines some of the modern barriers faced by the region's Indigenous communities and the ways these communities are moving forward in the face of adversity.
Pictou Landing Chief Andrea Paul cannot remember a time when the water that surrounds her community was safe.
But Boat Harbour, as it’s now called, was once such a part of life for members of the small Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq First Nation that it used to be referred to as A’se’k: the other room.
“The Elders talk about it as a place that was so beautiful, if they were hungry it was somewhere they could go and get some fish, or they could go get their medicine, they could just go and be together,” Paul said. “That’s how significant this area was for them, it was like just an extension of their home.”
Since the 1960s, Northern Pulp has piped untreated effluent from Abercrombie Point to it’s treatment facility at Boat Harbour where the effluent is treated and released into the Boat Harbour Basin near Pictou Landing First Nation.
“They stopped calling it A'se'k when it turned into pollution, it's been Boat Harbour since then,” Paul said.
Paul calls the pollution from Northern Pulp a form of colonization of her people, one that has impacted the health and morale of Pictou Landing for 52 years with no economic benefit to the community.
“It was another example of taking things away from us and to try and conform us,” she said.
But Paul and her community have not idly stood by, years of protesting, of court challenges, and tireless work has led to hope of remediation: the provincial Boat Harbour act of 2015 ordered Northern Pulp to halt the practice and come up with an alternate plan as well as a replacement treatment facility by 2020, or face being shut down. Recently, Ottawa announced it will contribute $100 million to the $217 million cleanup of the tidal estuary.
But, even on the long, bumpy road to remediation, healing will take time.
“We've endured so much trauma that healing will be really difficult,” she said, “And the healing can’t start until they stop dumping effluent in Boat Harbour.”
Amount of time Northern Pulp has piped untreated effluent from Abercrombie Point to it’s treatment facility at Boat Harbour where the effluent is treated and released into the Boat Harbour Basin.
Estimated cost of cleaning up the tidal estuary at Boat Harbour.
The year Northern Pulp was ordered to halt the practice and come up with an alternate plan as well as a replacement treatment facility by 2020, or face being shut down.
ROOM TO GROW
While some of the region's First Nations communities face massive environmental barriers, others also face physical hurdles.
Chief Roderick Googoo of the We'koqma'q First Nation in Cape Breton said the size and location of his community have held back economic growth.
“In order to have a successful economic base you've got to have land, and that's one of the major things that face Native communities, our communities are very limited and the land base is relatively small,” he said.
“Because the majority of bands are off the beaten track [...] it’s hard to attract any major development. In real estate, location is really important.”
Googoo said more investment from industry and from both levels of governments in First Nations communities, and access to more of their traditional lands for development are some way to overcome those hurdles and spur growth.
In the meantime, Googoo said, his community, like many others, has been working with what’s available to create an economic base.
“In my community, we're really going big on aquaculture. We have a fish farm, a fish hatchery and a processing plant that generates a lot of work and a lot of revenue for our community,” said Googoo.
“We have to come up with more innovative, creative ways of supporting our people.”
New Brunswicker Gail Paul, a Dakota Sioux Sixties Scoop survivor who is heavily involved in a number of Indigenous women’s associations, including the Eastern Door Indigenous Women’s Association and the Indigenous Women's Association of the Maliseet & Mi'kmaq Territory, is acutely aware of the specific barriers that exist for First Nations women.
According to Statistics Canada, Aboriginal women are almost three times more likely than non-Aboriginal women to report having been a victim of a violent crime, a topic that has been given more attention in recent years as public interest in the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls has grown.
Paul said these worrying trends do not just threaten women, but the health of Indigenous communities as a whole.
“One of the messages that gets lost within the context of missing and murdered Indigenous women is the silencing of our voices,” she said. “Indigenous women's voices have been silenced since the arrival of European settlers in Atlantic Canada because of the nature of the patriarchal society of the settlers.”
Paul said moving away from the pre-colonial matriarchal society has disrupted the normal way of life for Indigenous people in Atlantic Canada.
“It holds families back and it holds women back and it holds back that feminine voice,” she said.
Paul said the healing and empowerment of Indigenous women is necessary to facilitate the success of First Nations communities, so it’s crucial that governments continue to support women's centres and organizations that provide resources to advocate on behalf of Indigenous women.
“It all starts in the household [...] that filters out into your community and that filters out into society,” she said.
Three times higher
Aboriginal women are almost three times more likely than non-Aboriginal women to report having been a victim of a violent crime. - Statistics Canada
Five to seven times higher
Youth suicide rates are five to seven times higher than that of the non-Aboriginal population.
Number of youth reached since Eskasoni opened a youth mental health centre in 2017.
While the general population of Atlantic Canada is experiencing slow or negative growth and aging faster than the rest of the country, the region's Indigenous populations are younger in age and growing in number, positioning Indigenous youth as integral to the future of the region.
But, with youth suicide rates five to seven times higher than that of the non-Aboriginal population, mental health struggles have been a major barrier for many young people in realizing their full potential.
For Eskasoni First Nation in Cape Breton, the largest Mi’kmaq community in the world and the largest reserve in Atlantic Canada, repeated clusters of youth suicides over the past decade have had a snowball effect on mental health.
But, according to chief Leroy Denny, youth are fighting back.
“Our youth are amazing [...] in how they take on mental health issues, they're the ones leading the way, stepping up and helping their peers,” he said.
In the past year, Denny said the community’s youth mental health centre, which opened in 2017, has facilitated more than 200 different youth programs and reached over 2,300 youth.
Denny said youth-supported programming in the community empowers young people by encouraging their passions, and provides something that appeals to everyone: traditional activities like basket making, sweat lodge, music and dancing, cooking, sports of all kinds, even video games.
This has caused a resurgence of interest in the traditional Mi’kmaq way of life.
“They’ve really embraced their language, their traditions, their ceremonies,” he said.
While continued support and funding for youth and mental health programming is important, Denny said it’s crucial that the community take the reins on these initiatives.
“We want to provide whatever resources on our own to help our youth, but they're the ones that have to figure it out [...] these programs have to be developed from within our community,” he said.
Given support and resources to support each other, Denny said there's no limit to what Indigenous youth can accomplish.
“We invest in our youth because they’re our future and we believe that the stigma of our people has had for many years, they're the ones who will end it, and they'll lift the community.”
THE 3 KEY ISSUES
Indigenous youth from Atlantic Canada discuss the barriers to realizing their full potential, and how to break down those barriers.
22, Theatre and music business graduate, multidisciplinary artist, multi-instrumentalist and rapper under the name Wolf Castle Pabineau First Nation, N.B.
“There’s still lots of ignorance that exists, most of the time it isn't a cartoonish racism, it's more systematic. People feel is there's a huge division between Native communities and the rest of Canada.
"A lot of information that is being given to the public and in textbooks talks a lot about residential schools and talks a lot about suffering, there's a lot of language that kind of implies this is a past thing, that this is over that these people are gone. There’s a subtle implication there and if you're a developing mind in school learning about this, maybe you start thinking (Indigenous) people don't exist.
"I think it's very important to talk about the hardships, of course it is, but I think that if you only focus on that then it can kind of continue. I think a good thing to do is to show people also that the culture is alive.”
Issue: DRUGS AND ALCOHOL
21, political science major at Cape Breton University, Paq'tnkek First Nation, N.S.
“In my community I see a lot of youth addicted to drugs and abusing alcohol which stops a lot of youth from reaching their potential. From an early age, they feel like they’re not good enough or smart enough to go to university.
"I think it's just important to show youth that they can be successful, they can put themselves out there. It’s important to remind Indigenous youths that they belong here. I'm really proud that we’re breaking down barriers and ending cycles of abuse, cycles of drug and alcohol addiction and we're getting an education and we're going into social work, and law and medical school, and becoming nurses.
"I think a lot of my peers are doing really great and really giving back to our community.”
Issue: STRUCTURED ENVIRONMENTS
27, Memorial University, engineering graduate and engineer in training. Nunatsiavut, N.L.
“It’s always positive to have a structured environment, which an institution like the school system provides for youth, but when you become older the onus gets increasingly put upon the student to be responsible for doing homework and you start to have increasingly more difficult assignments that demand a lot of time and care and attention.
"A really big hurdle that I've experienced at times and that I know has happened to a lot of people that I grew up with is just having like a safe environment where you can even prioritize doing homework, because some people, their home environment is so bad that they're just focused on not being verbally or physically abused or around alcoholism or other substance abuse.
"It’s like Maslow's hierarchy of needs, where without having the foundational parts of that hierarchy being met, it's impossible to focus on the academic side, which is often the gateway to further success in further opportunity. A very pivotal piece to actualizing one's potential is being able to finish high school and a huge part of that is having like a safe structured environment that is supportive outside of school.”
Indigenous people discuss how they are succeeding in education and entrepreneurship.