Assessing the health of Boat Harbour

Community-based research

- March 5, 2012

Heather Castleden (left) meets with Sheila Francis, president of the PLNWA. (Bruce Bottomley photo)
Heather Castleden (left) meets with Sheila Francis, president of the PLNWA. (Bruce Bottomley photo)

In 1967, a pulp and paper mill opened in Pictou County. Its toxic waste water (known in the industry as “effluent”) was directed into an estuary called Boat Harbour alongside Pictou Landing First Nation. This practice has continued, albeit with increasingly sophisticated treatment practices, for the last 45 years.

Today, in 2012, Dalhousie’s Heather Castleden has been invited by the Pictou Landing Native Women’s Association (PLNWA) to help them research the effects of Boat Harbour on the health of residents. The lagoon’s contamination is a longstanding source of concern to the PLNWA, as “Boat Harbour was a really important Mi’kmaq gathering place and has been used for millennia for harvesting food, harvesting medicines,” explains Dr. Castleden.

Dr. Castleden’s research team and the PLNWA subsequently received two grants—one from the Atlantic Aboriginal Health Research Program, the other from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR)—to investigate the toll the contamination of Boat Harbour has taken on residents’ health. These three grants combined amount to just over half a million dollars, and the CIHR grant ranked first in its competition – rare for a first-time applicant.

Dr. Castleden hopes that by 2015, Dalhousie and the PLNWA will have a clear picture of the environmental health toll taken on the communities surrounding Boat Harbour – and how they can finally address problems that have been brewing for almost fifty years.

Community-centred research

What makes Dr. Castleden’s research so important is not only what she’s doing, but how she’s doing it. After only two years at Dalhousie’s School for Resource and Environmental Studies, Dr. Castleden is making a career out of redefining the parameters of academic research.

In this case, she aims to include local voices and seek local direction in the community-based participatory research she undertakes: her research process is a shared one, and her research team is composed of non-Indigenous and Indigenous scholars and community members. “The greatest honour for me is to be invited by a community to work with them.”

While acknowledging that “university-based research legitimizes some concerns and clarifies things that are useful to the community,” the research Dr. Castleden’s team and the PLNWA conduct will not be limited to the conventional academic methods: they will also utilize oral histories, sharing circles, and documentary filmmaking.

“We’re using a combination of indigenous and Western methods… we are using Elder Albert Marshall’s ‘two-eyed seeing’ approach to our research to bring the best of western and Indigenous knowledges together to make some sense of the state of health at Boat Harbour.”

Furthermore, the PLNWA will be co-owners of the research. “We’re very clear about sharing ownership of the data, which isn’t your typical way of going about it by any means.” Such an approach is vital to researchers who are as interested in discovering the emotional, social, and spiritual toll Boat Harbour has taken as the pollution’s physical effects on residents. “When they talk about sick, they don’t mean just physically sick.”

Finding environmental justice

The potential environmental catastrophe encapsulated by Boat Harbour is, to Dr. Castleden, troublingly symptomatic of a wider pattern.

“When you look at where the industrial dumping grounds are… you’ll often see them beside First Nations communities,” says Dr. Castleden. “And so this becomes a matter of environmental justice. Environmental racism is part of what environmental justice is about… Boat Harbour is not an isolated case.”

She points to the infamous case of Ontario’s Grassy Narrows, a community poisoned by an upriver chemical plant that supplied an adjacent pulp and paper mill. “They” (the residents of Grassy Narrows) “are suffering ill health to this day.” The political aspects of her research do not daunt Dr. Castleden. “There’s a lot of controversy… around Boat Harbour, but it shouldn’t be neglected just because of that. And I think it has been.”

Now that they’ve received the grants, where do Dr. Castleden and the PLNWA go from here?

“Our next big step will be to establish a very clear research agreement about how we’re going to work together in an ethical and respectful way.” Also, “The oral histories we’re inviting elders to be participating in… are getting started sooner rather than later, in the interests of time.” The researchers will also start seasonal monitoring of air and water quality and begin conducting ecotoxicology work.

“Essentially, we’re going to be doing independent, scholarly baseline research. And we anticipate the need and desire to continue this for years to come.”


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