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Boat Harbour Act decision likely Premier Stephen McNeil’s toughest, but telling for his legacy

Click to play video 'Premier Stephen McNeil’s legacy' Premier Stephen McNeil’s legacy
Stephen McNeil’s toughest decision during his political run came in 2019, when he and the government decided to keep its promise to the people of Pictou Landing First Nation and not extend the Boat Harbour Act.

December 20th, 2019, will go down in history as “decision day” in Nova Scotia.

That’s when Premier Stephen McNeil was caught between a rock and hard place, forced to make a decision about the five-year Boat Harbour Act.

Read more: ‘It’s time for someone else’: N.S. Premier Stephen McNeil stepping down from public office

On one side, there was a commitment to end the decades of dumping treated wastewater from the Northern Pulp paper mill into the polluted Boat Harbour lagoon while facing mounting pressure from the forest industry looking for an extension to keep the wastewater treatment plant running temporarily to keep the paper mill from closing.

But as McNeil had said, Northern pulp “failed to respect the timelines given to them five years ago,” and when decision day came around, the paper mill didn’t have an environmentally sound back-up plan in place to dump its wastewater.

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“This is one of the hardest decisions that we as a government have had to make,” said McNeil, who was visibly emotional during the press conference held back on Dec. 20. “The commitment I made to clean up Boat Harbour was a serious one and not something our government did lightly.”

McNeil stood by his promise and the polluting of Boat Harbour would stop. Northern Pulp would be granted an opportunity to be put into a “hot-idle” phase but the plant would close.

The forestry industry in Nova Scotia was delivered a major blow but the people of Pictou Landing First Nation who live adjacent to Boat Harbour would see the day they had long sought after, the polluting the water would halt as promised under the Boat Harbour Act, which was passed unanimously by all three parties during the 2015 legislature.

“It really meant a lot that he (Premier McNeil) kept his word,” said Pictou Landing First Nation Chief Andrea Paul, who since 2011 had heard many promises made by previous governments to clean up Boat Harbour but never saw any concrete actions.

Chief Paul knew it was a tough decision as the issue became heated and divided many in the community and she saw the emotional toll it took on the premier. No matter the decision, McNeil couldn’t please everyone, she said.

“I remember watching him that day on December 20th and I know how emotional that was for him and how difficult that was for him,” she said. “But I’ll forever be grateful to him.”

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Pictou Mayor Jim Ryan praised the premier for his handling of the Boat Harbour decision.

“I commend him for his strength and his fortitude and sticking to his guns on that particular issue,” said Ryan. “I’m sure that’s something that he should be and will be proud of when he leaves politics completely.”

Read more: Northern Pulp workers brace for life after the paper mill closes

Ryan says many in the community thought the premier might waiver from his commitment to the Boat Harbour Act, as a healthy forestry sector needed a pulp mill to remain viable and the forestry industry was putting extreme pressure on the government to grant an extension.

“(McNeil) knew that people were going to be hurt as a result of that decision but it was the right decision and he knew it was the right decision,” he said.

Friends of the Northumberland Strait advocated for the closure of the effluent treatment plant that was polluting the waters near Pictou Landing First Nation and they opposed Northern Pulp’s plan to dump its wastewater into the Northumberland Strait where the fishing industry for years had harvested lobster and other fish species.

President of Friends of Northumberland Strait Jill Graham-Scanlan applauded the premier for sticking to the rule of law and following the science.

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“In making that decision, (McNeil) did what very few politicians have done to date and that is to honour their commitments to a First Nations community,” said Graham-Scanlan.

The premier faced heavy backlash from the forestry industry with a protest held on the doorstep of the legislature calling for the premiers to grant Northern Pulp an extension, and many blamed McNeil for the subsequent downturn in the forestry industry.

Read more: Northern Pulp examining ‘hot idle’, says Nova Scotia forestry transition team member

Graham-Scanlan says that blame is misguided.

“Certainly the blame for that treatment facility not being approved to date rests squarely with Northern Pulp,” she said.

The Nova Scotia Liberal party now has its own tough decision to make — select a successor for their departing leader.