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Would-be Chief of Pictou Landing, Nova Scotia, will serve the first year free

Anti-fracking Jonathan Beadle aims to tackle Boat Harbour and issue in band transparency

by Miles Howe

Jonathan Beadle with new daughter Jayna Anne [Photo: A. Lorette]
Jonathan Beadle with new daughter Jayna Anne [Photo: A. Lorette]

PICTOU LANDING, NS – Jonathan Beadle is running for Chief of Pictou Landing, population about 600. And while normally this might not be necessarily any more newsworthy than any other candidate's intentions to run for office, there is the fact that Beadle is willing to do the job for free.

“My thought around is that yes, there is the perception that chiefs can be corrupted,” says Beadle of his potential Indian Act counterparts. “I want to prove to my community that I'm not someone who's in it for the money, and part of my platform will be that I will give up my first year's salary. I want the community to be active in trying to determine where I should donate my first year's salary (which amounts to about $50,000) to. I will have a letter legal notarized that will hold me to my word.”

One need only inhale on most days in Pictou Landing to begin to understand one of the key issues that has been affecting the community since 1967. The community is directly downstream from one of Canada's worst – and least talked about – ongoing environmental disasters, the Abercrombie pulp and paper mill's untreated effluent dumping ground, the hundred-odd acre tidal estuary known as Boat Harbour.

Most residents, as a matter of course, don't drink their tap water, and the funk of evaporating chemicals in the air is a near constant.

Beadle, as a life-long resident, is no stranger to the issue. And his activist credentials in relation to Boat Harbour are unquestionable; for years he has been the point person that outsiders to the community have sought out when attempting to understand how such a toxic catastrophe has been allowed to continue for generations.

But despite his efforts, which have spanned decades and have utilized a variety of methods, Beadle and his community are still largely on the outside looking in at an ongoing environmental and health crisis.

“Boat Harbour is something that's been with us since the day you were born, if you were born after 1965,” says Beadle. “It's something you grew up with. My experiences around it have not been of pleasantry at certain points in my life. Whether it was through clean up, relocation or continued compensation - these were issues that I've tried to bring up to various leaderships over the years. It's not the easiest thing to do, sometimes you can be labelled as a trouble-maker for pointing out the obvious. But it's my understanding that our community as a whole does not sit well with Boat Harbour. And I think its an issue that will be front and centre of any platform.”

Granted, such words, come election time, risk getting swept into that special dustbin reserved for political promises once the ballots have been cast. But over the course of his activism, Beadle has become something of a Boat Harbour expert, and he's convinced that there are particular avenues to pursue that past leaderships – for whatever reason – haven't sought out and explored.

For example, in 1993, the federal government entered into the Boat Harbour Settlement Trust with the community of Pictou Landing. The settlement handed over $35 million to the community, and control of the pulp and paper mill – and Boat Harbour – to Nova Scotia. Beadle notes that approximately $7 million of that went to legal fees, $5-7 million went to immediate distribution amongst community members, and $15 million was placed in an account for community relocation.

First on Beadle's 'to-do' list would be to pull back the blinds and provide some transparency on exactly where and how that $35 million has been spent, and where it is now.

“When you're dealing with such a serious issue, something that is dealing with people's well being, any member of the general population would want to be informed,” says Beadle. “Many of us in our community happen to think that we deserve a little bit more in the way of knowledge.

“I think an immediate update would probably be best [especially from] our legal counsel. I know that through social media there have been questions placed on leadership for an update. For various reasons, I can't say that there's been a clear update. I would like to provide if not weekly updates, definitely monthly updates on the way our community is moving forward with Boat Harbour. I think our community members are deserving of that. Given its been a long process, its been 40-plus years, I would certainly suggest that we deserve the right to know.”

Given the health and environmental problems facing the community, and given that Beadle himself can't promise to shut down Boat Harbour within his potential two-year term as chief, the issue of relocating the entire community to a safer location is one that the would-be chief is willing to seriously consider – with the onus placed on making it a community decision. With the potential for relocation written into the Settlement, it's clear to Beadle that those responsible for drafting the document were aware that Boat Harbour might not ever be returned to pristine condition – and that residents of Pictou Landing were being made sick because of it.

“Relocation is a very serious thought here in our community, especially with some of the elders,” says Beadle. “Still, some elders also have that feeling that we shouldn't have to, because this is where we've made our homes. But protecting our population from the hazardous effects from the treatment facility is a topic that is on many people's minds.

“I definitely think it's something worth considering. But that's an action that needs to be taken through a referendum vote. I think that if we could put it to the community through different avenues to find out if relocation is something they want, then I wouldn't hesitate as chief to begin to formulate a referendum in that regard.”

Of course, there is the entire question of whether becoming an Indian Act chief is simply playing into a colonial system of governance, meant to keep – or even scale back – an already precariously balanced status quo.

Beadle, arguably like many new to the political chieftain game, sees the Indian Act as a means towards an ends. It's a colonial document, sure. But within it, if understood, are means towards bettering one's community. He's cautious to back out of established forums, like the Assembly of First Nations, both for the potential of insider knowledge lost, and for the community-centric opportunities that can come from playing the game – even a colonial one – to one's best advantage.

“I'm not saying that the [Indian Act] doesn't work. I'm not saying that it does work,” says Beadle. “I'm saying that with each and every chief you have to learn to understand the workings of the Act. I think that when you can understand how it works, how it can benefit or how it can take away, then you begin to formulate a plan. More than anything that's my take on the Indian Act. There are a lot of things within the act that can either help or break a community. Interpretation is key to any chief. For any chief to understand the act in its entirety, then you can work towards bettering your community.”

Beadle is also cautious to step away from 'Modern-Day Treaty' tables that are currently ongoing across the country. Because original treaties signed in the Maritimes have never ceded title away from First Nations peoples, the federal, provincial and First Nations governments are engaged in a decades-long process to achieve business 'certainty'.

Activists worry that the end result of such tables – known locally as the 'Made in Nova Scotia Process' – will result in treaty and status being extinguished, and that First Nations populations will be simply one more minority in the supposed Canadian mosaic. It's such a contentious and serious issue that earlier in the spring of 2013 treaty activists starved themselves for twelve day in an effort to get the Nova Scotia chiefs to walk away from the tabling process. Despite a strong flexing of the Idle No More muscle in that campaign, only Rufus Copage of Shubenacadie walked away from the table.

Beadle, for his part, again wants the information contained within the process before he commits to walking away from it and taking his community along the maverick route. He does state that under no circumstance is he willing to put existing treaties into jeopardy, and that if modern-day treaties are on the table it will be a community decision to either adopt or reject them.

It should be added that chiefs are remunerated for sitting at their respective modern-day treaty tables. So while Beadle's offer of going without salary as chief of Pictou Landing does stand, and is certainly noteworthy, he would be receiving payment – slotted mostly for transport and accommodations, but still significant – for staying at the table.

“The modern-day treaty process has come off as something very complicated,” says Beadle. “I think it would be only appropriate that I would educate myself very thoroughly in that regard. I can't say right now that it would be proper to walk away from that or stay in. I think I would need a fair amount of time to educate myself, but I do think at the same time that a lot of this has to do with the people, that the people would have to get involved to determine what stand this community, Pictou Landing, would take. It is something that should be termed as a shared responsibility.

“I don't think it's something that one, two or three or four or five people should be dealing with. I know that the modern-day treaty process has had its issues in Nova Scotia. I'd like to be able to communicate an effort on behalf [of the KMKNO, the negotiating body] that people can be happy with and understand and I think that it's important that we educate our people properly so that we can make a decision based on good merits, not based on hearsay.”

As for the current hot-button topic of hydraulic fracturing, Beadle stands clearly against it. A life spent in close proximity to unhindered industrial pollution – a life which he has personally seen cut short amongst friends and family due to pollution-related illnesses - has potentially helped meld his mindset, which seems more geared towards sustainable and renewable means of energy, rather than resource extraction.

“We are a very advanced society,” says Beadle. “It seems to me that we could come up with better alternatives than resource extraction. I'm not one who sits well with hydraulic fracturing. I think that there is enough concrete evidence and enough concrete proof that fracking is not good for anyone. I don't agree with it.

“I think that the situation in Elsipogtog serves well in our communities about educating our people about hydraulic fracturing. There are probably enough chiefs out there in New Brunswick that oppose fracking, and I believe that any good chief will denounce the process of fracking.”

Elections in Pictou Landing take place on November 21st.

Follow Miles Howe @mileshowe

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