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Not Over: Tonya Francis and others stand watch over Pictou Landing burial grounds

Work crews have already disturbed graves says Francis. Historical documents point to burial site being well known.

by Miles Howe

Pictou Landing band members Tonya Francis, Maurina Beadle and 'Jono' Beadle remain at a sacred fire adjacent to the ruptured effluent pipe. They and others claim to have found ancestral graves adjacent to the ruptured pipe and say that contractors are already disrupting ancient grave sites. [Photo: Don Brooks]
Pictou Landing band members Tonya Francis, Maurina Beadle and 'Jono' Beadle remain at a sacred fire adjacent to the ruptured effluent pipe. They and others claim to have found ancestral graves adjacent to the ruptured pipe and say that contractors are already disrupting ancient grave sites. [Photo: Don Brooks]

Last week I reported from a Pictou Landing First Nation (PLFN) led 'blockade' over an effluent pipe that had burst and spilled its contents on an area likely to be a Mi'kmaw ancestral burial ground. In this article I follow up on the story. A group of PLFN band members remain at the scene of the spill. Historical documentation appears to conclusively identify the area of the spill and beyond as a traditional burial ground.

Here is the follow up:

Pik'tuk (Pictou Landing), Nova Scotia - Sitting beside a sacred fire, directly beside a fenced-off, ten foot segment of buried pipe that a gush of tens of millions of litres of raw effluent has exposed to the light of day, sit three members of the Pictou Landing First Nation band. As they have been for the past four days, they are fire keeping; sometimes laughing, sometimes crying, but continuously praying.

“I can't leave this spot,” says Tonya Francis of Pictou Landing. “We've found graves right along where I'm sitting.”

Indeed, archival records buried in Pictou County historical documents suggest that the entire area of the recent spill, which gushed an unknown quantity of untreated effluent over the course of an unknown time period, but which likely lasted at least twelve hours according to eye witnesses at the Boat Harbour Effluent Treatment Facility, where the effluent should have gone, was well known as an 'Indian Burial Grounds' until at least the 1870s.

An entry on page 6 of the Illustrated Historical Atlas of Pictou County reads as follows:

Here stood at the arrival of the English settlers an iron cross about ten feet high. Hence it is still known to this day as Indian Cross Point. In this place the Indians buried until a few years ago. Many of the graves can still be traced by the row of flat stones by which they were originally covered, which have now sunk to the level of the ground, and probably were always in that position, and are partially overgrown with grass. Human bones may frequently be found on the shore, caused by water wasting away the bank.”

Author D. McLeod concurred in a eloquently worded article in the September 14th, 1912, edition of the Pictou Advocate.

In it, McLeod notes:

The Indian Cross Point, less than a mile from the old coal wharves, was for many generations the burial place for the Indian dead. It was marked by a deal cross about twelve feet high, and plainly visible from vessels passing up and down the East River channel. The cross was renewed three times within my recollection.

During heavy storms and high tides in autumn the bank around the point gradually wore away, and several of the graves nearest the harbour were undermined and fell over onto the shore. As those dead had probably lain in their graves for over a century, nearly every vestige of their remains had decayed into dust, but occasionally a piece of bone, a tuft of raven hair, a decayed fragment of coffin, some fibrous substances (probably the remains of an old blanket) or a number of rusty nails would be visible in the fallen ground.

One day, over fifty years ago, the Indians turned out in force to repair the breach that time and tide had made on their old burial ground. Their first duty was to gather up every fragment that seemed to belong to the fallen graves. Those relics they interred in a new grave, a short distance inland from the bank. They then piled up boulders and smaller stones at the base of the bank to protect it from future storms.”

Last Saturday, an archaeologist in the employ of the Mi'kmaq Rights Initiative (KMKNO), along with Chief Andrea Paul of Pictou Landing, did collect some artifacts that suggested they had located a site of historical interest. Their investigation only lasted a matter of a few hours, however, and was cut short by Francis and Pictou Landing elder Maurina Beadle, who requested that they both be four days sober before returning for further archaeological analysis.

By yesterday, Monday, no archaeological team had returned.

Instead, Paul, under the guidance of a vote taken by Pictou Landing band members, inked an 'Agreement in Principle' with the provincial government of Nova Scotia. The agreement in principle contains promises to bring into law timelines to shut down the decades old Boat Harbour Effluent Treatment Facility.

The province also promises to: “[W]ork with the band to identify any Mi'kmaq burial sites or burial grounds at Indian Cross Point, and the province will protect any such sites.”

In return, the Pictou Landing band promised to: “[D]ismantle and disband its blockade of the Boat Harbour Effluent Treatment Facility.”

By Monday, mid-afternoon, the CBC out of Pictou, Nova Scotia was broadcasting that the blockade was over. Francis and others at the sacred fire had not attended the meeting – actually they had not left the fire – but by mid-afternoon Pictou Landing Chief and Council were actively encouraging Francis to leave and letting people know at the primary blockade site that everything was over, at least from the Pictou Landing First Nation side.

Publicly, the blockade was over, and local Halifax newspaper The Chronicle Herald today ran a Tuesday headline with Paul and Nova Scotia Environment Minister Randy Delorey posing in a 'victory' photograph, penning the Agreement in Principle.

But as of Tuesday evening, Francis still remains with her crew. They watch work crews begin the process of excavating the area around the twelve foot section of exposed – and broken – pipe.

“They've already disturbed graves we found yesterday,” says Francis. “I can't leave this fire. I need it up so that this can be stopped.”

Historical records also bring into some degree of doubt as to whether the Mi'kmaq peoples ever actually ceded their burial ground to colonial purchasers. Without delving into the argument that Nova Scotia and all the Maritimes are all in fact unceded territory – which indeed they are - it does appear that the burial grounds, including the effluent covered portion, were meant to be reserved by forward thinking Mi'kmaq chiefs from the 'Pictou tribe', back in 1784.

In Rev. George Patterson's The History of the County of Pictou, of 1973, he notes:

The only land in the county, so far as we have been able to ascertain, reserved for them in Government grants, is a small lot at their burying ground, at the mouth of the East River, but this they sold to the late James Carmichael, with the exception of the burying ground itself.”

In Book 2 of the 1784 'Registry of Deeds', the exchange is outlined in the words of Majors Paul and Sapier, two chiefs of the Mi'kmaq peoples:

We Major Paul and Sapier the two Indian chieftains of the Pictou tribe for ourselves and in the name of other Pictou Indians for a certain sum of money now paid to us by Mr. James Carmichael, make over to him and his heirs one acre of cleared lands less or more joining Indian Cross reserving the burial grounds to ourselves given under hand at Walmsley the Twenty sixth day of August, 1784.”

The exchange itself, under the Royal Proclamation of 1763, was illegal, in that colonialists could not directly purchase land from the Mi'kmaq. But likely this was not known to Paul, Sapier, or perhaps even Carmichael, who appear to have entered into the deal in good faith.

If the holding back of the burial grounds for future generations by Paul and Sapier has gone unnoticed, and indeed it has because presently Northern Pulp holds an effluent pipeline easement on part of the original burial grounds itself, the transfer of title by Paul and Sapier to Carmichael certainly has never been contested. One can trace the land transfer of Carmichael's land, including the burial grounds, down through the years to the present day.

In this case it would appear to be a question of colonial convenience.

The current owner of the remaining burial grounds, minus the segment leased to Northern Pulp's pipeline easement, has offered under anonymity to donate the remaining property back to the Pictou Landing band.

Flash forward to today, and Francis continues to watch over her ancestors' graves while contractors begin to dig around the ruptured pipe.

Likely, if graves have already been covered by effluent and sludge, they will be destroyed or never found. Francis notes that there is currently no archaeologist on scene and a Nova Scotia department of Environment spokesperson today told the Halifax Media Co-op that: “What Northern Pulp does to the pipe is with Northern Pulp.”

Although I am no archaeologist, on Sunday, while investigating the scope of the spill's destruction, I came across what I felt could only be a grave site, nestled beside a massive maple tree, only feet away from calf-deep sludge. It was a collection of medium-sized rocks, clearly made out into an oval shape, about the size of an adult in the fetal position.

“There is a reason why I've had to break all the rules,” says Francis. “This morning my heart was calling me back to this spot.”

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