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‘Melting pot of harmony’: Mi’kmaq artist receives outpouring of support after sign is vandalized

A billboard-size highway sign that highlights the province's rich Mi'kmaq heritage stands along the Trans-Canada Highway near Amherst, N.S. on Monday, Jan. 14, 2019.
A billboard-size highway sign that highlights the province's rich Mi'kmaq heritage stands along the Trans-Canada Highway near Amherst, N.S. on Monday, Jan. 14, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

A prominent Mi’kmaq artist is speaking out just days after his work was vandalized with a message decried by many as an act of racism.

But Leonard Paul, a member of the Pictou Landing First Nation, isn’t reprimanding the culprits — instead, he’s thanking hundreds of Nova Scotians who have sent him emails, texts and social media messages of support in the days since the graffiti was removed.

“The tone was unbelievable. Every message was warm, every message was comforting,” he told Global News from his home in Truro, N.S., on Thursday. “Not one negative one. They apologized — they didn’t need to apologize, because it wasn’t their fault.”

READ MORE: Vandalized provincial sign an act of racism in response to Northern Pulp shut down, N.S. MP says

The sign that was vandalized is renowned in Nova Scotia. Located along Highway 104, near the province’s border with New Brunswick, it contains Paul’s illustration of a Mi’kmaq elder and reads, “Land of the Mi’kmaq.” It’s a recognition that the province lies in Mi’kmaq territory.

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Sometime over the weekend of Feb. 1-2, it was spray-painted with the message, “NS Needs Mills.”

“In a way, I wasn’t too concerned about that,” said Paul, a Halifax-born painter, sculptor and art instructor. “I was more concerned about my own chief, Chief Andrea Paul, like here’s another affront — another stab — but we exchanged some words to keep our chins up and not let it get us down.”

For generations, the Pictou Landing First Nation has suffered the consequences of pollution in Boat Harbour — A’se’k — which has served as a dumping ground for the Northern Pulp mill’s wastewater.

The provincial government recently shut that practice down, resulting in hundreds of lost jobs from the mill and a fresh wave of racism directed towards the Indigenous community.

Northern Pulp to cut off all discharge into lagoons until end of April
Northern Pulp to cut off all discharge into lagoons until end of April

At a recent panel discussion on environmental racism, Chief Paul revealed that as the decision to close Boat Harbour was finalized in December 2019, she, her family and community were the target of so much public vitriol they would only leave the house in pairs.

“During the Christmas break, I really seen not just the online, but it was in person,” she told a crowd at Saint Mary’s University on Wednesday night. “I could not go anywhere by myself. I quickly realized that so I would have to get somebody to come with me to places, because we were seen as the reason why the mill shut down.”

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Pictou Landing First Nation Chief Andrea Paul (centre) speaks about environmental racism during a sustainability week panel at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax on Feb. 5, 2019.
Pictou Landing First Nation Chief Andrea Paul (centre) speaks about environmental racism during a sustainability week panel at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax on Feb. 5, 2019. Elizabeth McSheffrey/Global News

READ MORE: Halifax classrooms could acknowledge Mi’kmaq land in daily announcements

Chief Paul has since called for better public education on the environmental assessment process, so stakeholders can understand why and how government makes decisions, like the one to shut down Boat Harbour.

Leonard Paul said the messages of support he’s seen since the sign was vandalized are an indication of Nova Scotia’s solidarity and unity, despite the division created by the closure of the mill.

“It just goes to show we have a huge melting part of harmony and if you offend one Nova Scotian you offend all, because that sign meant a lot to everyone collectively,” he said.