For St. Mary’s future, the sky’s the limit

By Alec Bruce, Local Journalism Initiative reporter    
August 26 2020

SHERBROOKE – As any Google night map will tell you, the District of St. Mary’s is a nighttime island of darkness in our province. But could this blackness be the key to a brighter economic future? Specifically, could it become an official UNESCO World Heritage Dark Sky Preserve, and open its doors to international stargazers seeking nocturnal vistas undiminished by electric lights?

This was just one idea floated during St. Mary’s first formal planning session in years – attracting about 30 participants to workshops in Sherbrooke on August 19 – giving local businesses and individuals a public say in the shape of things to come for their community.

“I was impressed by the level of discussion that happened at the tables,” said Chief Administrative Officer Marvin MacDonald, who worked with Halifax urban design firm Fathom Studio to mount the exercise on behalf of council. “When you get ideas like dark skies coming out, that’s a really good sign that people are engaged.”

Leigh MacFarlane, Cherry Hill resident and CEO of The Nova Scotia Soap Company, who attended both business and general workshops, agreed. “For a public engagement type of thing in St. Mary’s, I think it was quite well attended,” she said. “It was nice to see a lot of really respectful discussion. It’s important for people to come together to talk, even if they don’t always agree.”

Indeed, MacDonald said, “Some people had strong opinions, but they expressed themselves in a very respectful manner.”

According to both, just about everything was on the table – from the role of heavy industry, such as Atlantic Gold’s hope to build a mine along the St. Mary’s River, to tourism. “The overriding themes were about having things done in a sustainable way,” MacFarlane said. “There was a lot of commonality on wanting to maintain the health of the river. We want to retain the essence of what we have going on here.”

Added MacDonald: “People liked the idea of sustainable economic development. But some were interested in seeking a balance. The opinion was you had to have some [heavy] industry to create revenues and bring employment to the area.”

Participants were uniformly allied on one thing, that the condition of Internet infrastructure in the district is appalling. Despite living in a world that increasingly relies on blink-fast download and upload times, slow, or even non-existant service is commonplace here. “There was a lot of agreement about why that needs to be improved,” MacFarlane said.

But, perhaps, ears pricked up most when MacFarlane raised the subject of dark skies. “It just struck me,” she told The Journal later. “The night before, my daughter and I were driving back from the city and we had to get out at some point to switch drivers, and we both looked up at the sky. It took my breath away and I live here. So many people who live in the cities never get to see the stars. UNESCO has protected dark skies areas in the world, so, I said, ‘why couldn’t we do that?’ Everybody in the group was, like, yeah. . .that’s something we absolutely have.”

In fact, there is precedent in Nova Scotia. The Acadian Skies and Mi’kmaq Lands Starlight Reserve near Yarmouth is only one of two UNESCO dark sky territories in North America. For years, until the global pandemic hit, its nighttime celestial peep show had lured hundreds of daytime-spending visitors from across Canada, the U.S., and Europe.

Reliable numbers are elusive, but pre-COVID research suggests that dark-sky enthusiasts comprised one of the fastest-growing segments of the annual $8-trillion U.S. global tourism industry. To get their night fix, middle-class Americans had been known to blow a month’s wages on last-minute airfare to, say, Chile, if the viewing was ideal.

“It’s definitely a thing,” Halifax’s David Lane, a life member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada and a past-president of the city’s chapter, said in an interview with this reporter last year. “People are inundated with light these days. We are pouring it into the night sky almost indiscriminately.”

Whether a scheme such as this would work in St. Mary’s remains unclear. But to many here, that’s not really the point. Not yet, at any rate. “Some great discussion took place,” MacDonald said. “That’s what’s important. Fathom will now review all the notes from the workshops and then we’ll see where we’re going from here.”