Membertou officials still waiting for money
to study tar ponds cleanup

By Tanya Collier MacDonald
Cape Breton Post
Thurs., April 1, 2004

MEMBERTOU - First Nations officials are feeling a bit snubbed by Ottawa as they wait to hear if the community is getting $1.8 million in federal funding to conduct its own study of technologies proposed to clean up the Sydney tar ponds and coke ovens sites. "We don't seem to be making any headway," said Bernd Christmas, chief executive officer of the native community.

Membertou filed for the independent consultation dollars to review options proposed for cleaning up the sites. And, Christmas believes the $1.8 million is fair considering the three levels of government just finished spending nearly $71 million on work done at the site to date. "Our constitutional rights, our treaty rights, and our aboriginal rights are all intertwined into that whole area," said Christmas.

However, since the application was filed in December, not a word has been heard from Ottawa. "As you can imagine, there is a some frustration on our part," said Christmas. "And a bit of consternation because of the fact that we do have some legitimate concerns and claims. And the fact that we've been shut out of the entire process - Membertou has not been a part of it - what's the problem here?" Kelly Cowper, spokesperson for Environment Canada, said in early 2003, the federal government entered a Contribution Agreement with the Union of Nova Scotia Indians for communication and education activities related to the tar ponds.

The government has also received a request from Membertou regarding funding for independent consultation. Discussions are continuing with the Mi'kmaq community in the hopes of developing an appropriate work plan and appropriate funding, she said.

Christmas said Membertou prides itself on having great relationships with the federal and provinvial governments It also attributes some of its success to the bonds they have. "But when it comes to this particular issue, nothing is happening," he said. "It's quite astounding."

Christmas added that watching the provincial and federal governments recent battles over cost-sharing the cleanup has added to the community's aggravation. "We haven't been privy to those discussions and again no one has talked to us." Christmas said the community's hands are tied until governments make an official statement on plans for the cleanup.

At that time, Membertou officials will begin reviewing their options, which include participating in an environmental assessment hearing, meeting with ministers, or, a more adversarial situation, head to court. "That's the last thing we want to do," said Christmas. "But, what do you do in these situations when you're forced into a corner - especially when you want to protect your constitutional rights."

Christmas added the province's recent mentions of starting the cleanup on its own is unrealistic. "How can they do that with out an environmental assessment hearing?"

In addition, the native community sent a letter to Ottawa nearly a year ago seeking compensation for its loss of fishing due to contamination from the toxic sites. There was a native community located along Sydney harbour around the turn of the century. That community was forced to relocate to what is now known as Membertou - about three kilometres away from the tar ponds.

The First Nations community's population is about 1,000.