Membertou says toxic waste hurt fishing, wants compensation

Cape Breton Post
Saturday, June 17, 2003

A native community is seeking compensation from the federal government for a loss of fishing due to contamination from canada's worst toxic waste site.

Membertou Chief Terry Paul said a letter was sent May informing Ottawa of its request for monetary reimbursement for the community, located about three kilometres (as the crow flies), from the Sydney tar ponds and coke ovens sites. "People have difficulty comprehending what we mean by aboriginal title. Before anyone, we were here on this land. In the area where it's damaged by the ponds, this is where we used to fish. This was our livelihood."

When studies were done around the Sydney harbour for planned sewer outfall work, arrowheads were found, he said. "They were at least 250 years old. If that doesn't prove our presence there, I don't how what would."

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, which has a population of just under 1,000.

Paul said discussions are expected to take place between the native community and government in the coming months. Talks will also centre around remediation options recently selected by residents of the Cape Breton Regional municipality via a workbook exercise. About 1,800 residents participated and the majority selected permanent removal and destruction as the way of remediating the 700,000 tonnes of toxic s1udge and 60 hectares of highly contaminated land. "It doesn't matter who decided what, we would like to have our experts in there to determine the best method. "The government is obligated to help us do this."

Paul said he is aware non-native residents have participated in a process known as the Joint Action Group since 1997, and a Membertou resident was a member for a short time, but added the community would prefer an independent person to study the option. "I don't know if burning it is the best thing."

He said the community's aim is to "make sure we do it the best way possible. It's not to say that we don't agree with a lot of what has happened. All we're saying is that there is a legal obligation for the federal government to consult with us and to mitigate issues satisfactorily. That's all we're asking for."

Paul said Membertou residents are just being cautious. "We've been told there are no health problems but we've been told a lot of things. We can't help but be cynical about what government tells us. We need to find out and be satisfied ourselves through independent people."

He added that "we're helping the public too by doing this. We're in a position to do something and government has no choice because it has a legal obligation to deal with us."

The native community will also make sure governments do cleanup the mess. "We'll ensure this issue is on the top burner right off the bat. We want this cleaned up. It may take past our generation. But that's fine. We have to start it."

Paul said he can "envision ourselves and our kids at some point swimming in those waters." It might cost a lot of money, "but in the long run it's an investment in our children and their future and the future of all the species that are around us. They're in trouble, we need to do something to help it out.