SMRA pursues heritage status for river

By Alec Bruce, Local Journalism Initiative reporter    
July 1 2020

SHERBROOKE – Hoping to discourage further encroachment by gold mining interests, the St. Mary’s River Association (SMRA) is now seeking formal Canadian heritage status for the iconic Nova Scotia waterway, says the group’s president.

“This is absolutely strategic,” Scott Beaver told The Journal earlier this week. “It’s another thing we can use against [Atlantic Gold] and other mines that could come in the future, to try to keep them out of the river valley.”

If the initiative is successful, the St. Mary’s River will join the Shelburne River in Southwestern Nova Scotia and the Margaree-Lake Ainslie River in Cape Breton as one of only three systems in the province – and only 41 nationwide – to receive the coveted designation, which is administered jointly among Canadian federal, provincial and territorial governments.

The SMRA has failed to win heritage status for the river on two previous occasions, but Beaver says the timing now is ideal. “Look at all the cultural and environmental things we have going on here,” he says. “There’s the newly designated site for the Whale Sanctuary Project in Port Hilford. There’s the $1 million grant from the Province for Historic Sherbrooke Village. And then there are all the protected properties that are coming into play.”

Currently, the Nova Scotia Nature Trust manages roughly 1,400 acres of land proximate to the St. Mary’s River donated by private interests. Earlier this year, Nova Scotia Environment dampened Atlantic Gold Corporation’s plans to operate an open pit mine along the watercourse by confirming that its proposed use of nearby Archibald Lake as a source of freshwater for mineral extraction “cannot be permitted.”

The SMRA is working with the Change Lab Action Research Initiative, a provincial program that provides the public with access to various academic resources to prepare the application for the Canadian Heritage Rivers System (CHRS). Once submitted, it’s expected to move through a complex vetting process that could take more than a year to complete. “It’s a federal thing, but the Nova Scotia government has a huge part to play as well,” Beaver says. “It will take some time.”

The CHRS charter states that it is “a model of stewardship, cooperation and participation” and “a tangible public expression by governments in Canada to recognize, conserve, and manage in a sustainable manner, designated heritage rivers and their natural qualities.”

The charter also says the CHRS neither binds its partners legally, nor confers any authority that supersedes the statutes of the individual provinces in which it operates.

Beaver says the chief advantage of designation is the prestige that the nationally recognized and respected title bestows. Current Canadian Heritage Rivers include: The Athabasca in Alberta, the Fraser in British Columbia, the Ottawa in Ontario, and the St. John in New Brunswick.

SMRA has vigorously opposed Atlantic Gold’s development plans for the area – which are undergoing federal environmental review – since the mining company announced the proposed gold mine at Cochrane Hill in 2018.

In February, Beaver told the Journal, “The St. Mary’s River is the last best hope for salmon recovery in, arguably, all of the Maritimes. We have invested more than a million dollars since 2014 to improve habitat for wildlife and recently received a $1.2 million federal grant to continue the work. We are the river system in Nova Scotia that for years has been sending our large fish to repopulate other rivers. This [Atlantic Gold] development could undermine everything we’ve done.”

For its part, Atlantic Gold has said it is confident in the environmental safety of the project, repeatedly pointing to its existing gold operations at Moose River, near Musquodoboit, for proof of its social responsibility.

“There, we’re just upstream from the protected area, Ship Harbour-Long Lake,” Jim Millard, the company’s Manager of Environmental and Community Relations, said in an interview in February. “We’ve been operating there for two years now with essentially no detectable effects to that lake right at this stage. The water that comes out of our operation is very, very clean.”