February 17, 2020
Edited on May 5, 2020
When I was a law student, I took advantage of an opportunity to take a course in “Planning Law” from a professor with a passion for municipal governance. I learned a lot, and it was fascinating to explore some of the ways that municipal governments contribute to the intricate web of institutions that shape day-to-day life in Canada.
Recently, the Municipality of the County of Colchester took an important step to protect the environment in Nova Scotia and, in doing so, highlighted one of the many ways that municipal governments can contribute to ecological governance in this province.
Section 106 of Nova Scotia’s Environment Act allows operators of water works to request that the provincial Minister of Environment designate certain areas as “protected water areas”. To qualify for designation, the area must surround any source or future source of water supply for a water works. Subsection 106(6) of the Act states that after the Minister has designated a protected water area, the water works operator can also request that the Minister make regulations to protect the area as needed. Nova Scotia has twenty-four protected water area designations, most of which have regulations that limit activities in the watershed.
Nova Scotia’s French River Watershed is the source of drinking water for the Village of Tatamagouche. Over the past couple of years, the Colchester County Council has been taking steps to have the French River Watershed designated as a protected water area and draft regulations that Nova Scotia’s Environment Minister could adopt under subsection 106(6) of the Environment Act. On January 30, 2020, the Council voted unanimously to request the designation of the watershed as a protected water area and submit proposed regulations to Environment Minister Gordon Wilson so that they can be turned into law.
Importantly, the Council’s proposed regulations would prohibit mining activities in the designated protected water area. That would be a big deal for the region, as the Government of Nova Scotia is considering the prospect of opening the area up for future mining activities. If the Environment Minister agrees to create the regulations that the Council has proposed, the Municipality will have created a powerful protection for a vibrant watershed and all of the life that depends on it.
Serendipity works in mysterious ways. Around the same time that the Colchester County Council was getting ready to act to protect the French River Watershed, a document made public through a FOIPOP application came across my desk. That document was a letter from Maryse Belanger, COO of the mining company Atlantic Gold, which Ms. Belanger apparently sent to a number of Nova Scotia’s Cabinet Ministers in February 2019. The document was forwarded to us by community members who are concerned about new mining projects that Atlantic Gold has proposed to develop in Nova Scotia.
Ms. Belanger's letter explains that in February of last year, the Council of the Municipality of the District of St Mary’s held public meetings to discuss Atlantic Gold’s proposed gold mine at Cochrane Hill. The Council asked Atlantic Gold not to attend, and Atlantic Gold responded with a forceful complaint. Among other things, Ms. Belanger’s letter asks the Government of Nova Scotia to make it clear to the St. Mary’s Council that it has “no legal or legislative authority” over the proposed Cochrane Hill project.
Reading that letter in light of the events of the past eight months, it was impossible not to be struck by the irony of Atlantic Gold’s anger at being excluded from public meetings, when in May 2019, just a few months after the letter was sent, an Atlantic Gold security officer had a peaceful Nova Scotian forcibly removed from a public information session that Atlantic Gold was hosting in Sherbrooke.
There is a lot to be said about Atlantic Gold’s reaction to the decisions of the St. Mary’s Council in February 2019, but, in my view, there are two especially crucial points to remember in our present moment as we watch and wait to see how Nova Scotia’s Environment Minister responds to the Colchester County Council’s initiative.
First: Municipalities do have the power to contribute to ecological governance in Nova Scotia. Their powers are not unlimited, true, but they matter all the same. For Canadians who are not Indigenous persons living on reserve, municipal governments are the governments that are (theoretically) closest to the people. Municipal councils are uniquely positioned to hear their constituents’ concerns and respond to them or amplify them so that they will be heard by those with higher authority. On top of that, legislative provisions like section 106 of the Environment Act give municipalities special roles to play in ensuring Nova Scotians have access to clean, safe drinking water.
Second: When municipalities take steps like the one the Colchester County Council just took, they rely on the voices of their residents, whether those residents are for or against the initiatives proposed. The importance of fostering and maintaining spaces where community members feel safe to share opinions and information and ask questions freely cannot be overstated.
I hope that all of our governments, at all levels, will always recognize and fulfill their duties to listen to the voices of the people they are appointed to represent and serve.