A Mi’kmaw water protector is raising concern that a new viewing boardwalk at Peggy’s Cove will limit access to a sacred medicine — sweetgrass.
Michelle Paul tells Global News she is saddened there was no consultation with the wider Mi’kmaw community before construction began on Peggy’s Cove.
She fears that the boardwalk will be built on top of land where sweetgrass grows, saying it’s one of the last accessible locations for Mi’kmaq to harvest the plant.
The province of Nova Scotia and the government of Canada and announced Friday that they will be investing $3.1 million to support the construction of the viewing deck on the rugged shore of Peggy’s Cove. The project was touted as one that will help ensure an accessible and engaging experience for visitors, business operators and residents.
“The area will create a public space where people can view the lighthouse and experience the waves and rocks in a way that is fully accessible and safe,” the province said in a statement last week.
Paul says she understands that from a tourism perspective, but there’s more to Peggy’s Cove than a tourist attraction.
“I get that, it is a beautiful spot, it’s quite magical, it’s quite spiritual, too,” she said.
“It’s a sacred location for us, meanwhile, who go and pick our medicines there. And I’m not too sure that is so well known to the population.”
Sweetgrass is a plant that grows in wet land, near the water.
“There’s fewer and fewer and fewer locations that we can actually find it,” Paul says, adding that she would not name the other locations because the growth of sweetgrass is dwindling.
Peggy’s Cove is one of the areas Paul says is a common spot for the Mi’kmaw annual harvesting tradition.
“It’s medicine that we pick in ceremony, and we offer our tobacco, we offer our prayers and gratitude for what it gives us. And we braid it up; it’s much like the hair of Mother Earth.
“When we braid it up, we use it to burn it, and the smoke from that medicine is like a direct (connection) to our creator. You can’t get much more sacred than that.”
Paul says when she raised concerns about the boardwalk project on social media, some questioned if the medicine can be moved.
“My goodness, that triggered in me a conversation of centralization. You know, our history here in Nova Scotia, that’s how the reserves and the band got created through the process of centralization, relocating whole communities.
“So, no, no, we can’t move a sacred medicine. No, there’s practices and protocols and ceremonies involved when we pick our medicines.”
She says she cannot help but draw a link between the Mi’kmaq being displaced, and now a sacred medicine.
“We revere the plant world, the animal world, all species; all of creation is our relatives. So what you do to one, you’re doing to us.”
While Paul admits she doesn’t know the details of the project design and the research that went into it, she says her instinct is that the structure will interfere with the growth of sweetgrass in the area and will limit the ability to harvest in ceremony.
“Everybody was mentioning how great it will be for accessibility and all of these narratives. No doubt it will be,” she said. “But of course, the first thing that popped in my mind as someone who frequents the area yearly to pick sweetgrass, was the sweetgrass.”
“So it was in direct conflict to what others were saying about accessibility, because accessibility for some then ultimately interferes with the accessibility of others, such as the Mi’kmaw rights holders who have the right to freely pick our medicines on our own territory.”
Paul says she hopes this is a teaching moment for settlers in Nova Scotia, and a reminder to revisit the treaties.
When projects like these are discussed without including Mi’kmaw knowledge in initial consultation, Paul says it’s disrespectful to the treaties.
Peter Bigelow, vice-president of planning and development with Develop Nova Scotia, told Global News on Sunday that the agency is partnering with the Mi’kmaw Friendship Centre to learn more about the areas where sweetgrass grows on Peggy’s Cove.
“(They) said that they are happy to have a few of the people that lead those programs for harvesting, from the Mi’kmaw community, come out and sort of identify areas, look at where we’re doing the work and identify for us the areas where they’re harvesting and that we should stay away from,” Bigelow said.
He said the advice to do this came from a Twitter user who first raised concerns over the boardwalk plan.
Bigelow said he spoke with the centre’s executive director Pamela Glode-Desrochers, who also raised the issue of ensuring that the boardwalk is not restricting access to the harvest area.
“We are also going over the design in detail with the harvesters to assure them that this is factored in,” he said.
“It is very important for elders, who can have some physical limitations and are important to the harvest.”
Bigelow told Global News the platform will be built largely within the existing road where crowds usually gather.
“In fact, we are removing pavement to build this,” he said.
“It’s also quite high. My understanding ecologically, sweetgrass is found most commonly at the upper reaches of a salt marsh whereas the area where we’re working… is about 10 metres above sea level.”
Bigelow said community consultation was at the heart of the development plan for the project, ensuring the lives of those who live in Peggy’s Cove year-round are not disrupted.
He also said independent Mi’kmaw agencies focused on tourism were a part of initial focus groups for the project.
“If there were any stories to be told here, as we moved into the programing, (it was) the Mi’kmaq who needed to determine what those stories were and how they were not told,” he said, “just something we respect.”
Construction on the boardwalk began late last year, and Bigelow said the agency is looking forward to engaging with Mi’kmaw experts on harvesting sweetgrass.
“You can’t get everything right. It’s not an excuse, it’s just something I’m pointing out,” he said.
“But we are always willing to to correct things because it just makes for a much better project for us, and a better product, and a better solution for all the communities that are involved.”
Paul says that while she wants to believe the agency is acting in good spirit, she is not yet confident this effort will have “any real bearing or impact,” adding that it’s work that should’ve already been done.
“It’s a fair indication of our past relationship with government and in provincial governments on projects of these natures,” she says.
However, Paul says she is confident that this story might bring those conversations to the table.
“I believe that the spirit of good intention is in motion now, and I think more good will come from it.”
She says she is comforted by the fact that consultation is ongoing, and hopes that the agency will speak with the Association of Mi’kmaw Chiefs and other community leaders.
“I would be involved in that process, as I’m sure other mothers and rights holders would be… certainly have to speak up for the sweetgrass,” she said.
“Who’s going to speak for the sweetgrass?”
Paul says she hopes the agency, and provincial and federal governments, will act from the heart and move forward in a way that respects Mi’kmaw resilience and knowledge.
Global News has reached out to the Mi’kmaw Friendship Centre but has not received a response by the time this article was published.