The first you see of the Treaty Truckhouse is its flag, in my case thrashing proudly red in the crisp wind of late April, dancing among the dead tan long grass with a Shubenacadie River backdrop. Proceed a little farther on and the simple wooden structure supporting it comes into view, held out of the mud and pools of standing water by a network of pallets. Unless dressed in the firmest of winter attire, you are cold, and unless blind, you see the buildings, fences and mixing channel of Alton Gas just beyond, intent on one day dumping brine into the Shubenacadie.
When the Treaty Truckhouse was first built by water protectors in 2016 – many of them members of the Sipekne’katik First Nations – it did not have pallets, resting on the mud where it was periodically flooded by the river it was there to protect. Its occupants slept in hammocks above the damp, sacrificing any claim to comfort for the sake of an unforgiving waterway. Even today, with a dry floor and modest woodstove, the Treaty Truckhouse is a cold place.
“There is pretty well always someone here,” I was told upon entering. People have stayed here through harsh Nova Scotian winters and hot mosquito summers, reminding a nation that Alton Gas is not welcome here, and that no promises of economic growth are worth the integrity of this river or its wildlife. On its banks can be seen Bald eagles in astounding density, and in its brown waters swim the imperiled Striped bass.
I was told a great many things upon entering the Truckhouse – how this river was once a highway for the Mi’Kmaq from Halifax to the Bay of Fundy, how during the dark days of residential schools the Shubenacadie represented freedom to victims of this cultural warfare, how to this day it is a source of food to those who can’t readily afford fresh bass at Sobeys – but my most powerful conversation was with Darlene Gilbert, among those arrested on behalf of this river.
She endured the residential school system as a child and shared with me stories of sexual assault which were difficult to hear, causing her to flee Nova Scotia onto the streets of Toronto and then Vancouver, where drugs seemed the only answer to the death of family and a way of life. The number of aboriginal women and girls who have disappeared under similar circumstances across Canada, ending in either mystery or murder, is staggering for anyone with a soul; in 2014 the Royal Canadian Mounted Police said that between 1980 and 2012, at least 1,017 First Nations women were murdered, while many others went missing under suspicious circumstances. Darlene came so close to becoming one of these women – even meeting serial killer Robert Pickton – that she rightly calls herself a survivor, not just of residential schools, but of the disproportionate dangers threatening aboriginal women.
She came back to Nova Scotia at the age of 33, and has raised a son who, in his darkest hour, would never lay hurtful hands on a woman.
The Treaty Truckhouse wasn’t the only structure erected by water protectors in opposition to Alton Gas; there was also the straw bale house, built close to the site’s entrance in 2017.
When Alton Gas won its injunction against water protectors on March 18, the RCMP were empowered to arrest and remove anyone who refused to depart the property of Alton Gas, on which the straw bale house stood, but they didn’t exercise this power right away. There was an awkward lull, during which a few water protectors stood fast at the straw bale house. Among them was Darlene.
She spoke with RCMP who came to negotiate, explaining that simple morality prevented her willing departure. She also watched as Alton Gas fenced in a portion of their own property – a “designated protest area” required by the same injunction threatening Darlene with removal. Here people could oppose the project while being out of the way. While there’s a lot to criticize here, Darlene’s issue with the site came not with the fence itself, but with the signs hung onto it.
Peaceful protesters can use this designated area during daylight hours. To maintain a safe and clean area for all, please remove all garbage, do not park vehicles, camp or light fires. Note that the use of alcohol and drugs is strictly prohibited.
“The sign is really derogatory,” she told me. The presence of water protectors on the Shubenacadie River is meaningful precisely because they are there day and night; fires are used routinely in ceremony; many water protectors, including Darlene, don’t drink and certainly don’t allow drugs near their sacred medicines. These cultural insinuations drove Darlene to an uneasy sleep one night, during which she dreamed of red dresses, which have for sometime symbolized the murdered and missing indigenous women of Canada. She found great significance in this and, soon thereafter, purchased several red dresses, which she and others hung overtop each sign.
“It was done in honour, in dignity and in ceremony,” she said, “not in disrespect.”
She was asked to take them down and she declined, until it was agreed – or at least she thought it was agreed – that the fence and its signs would come down too. So she took down the dresses, she was arrested for contempt of an injunction on April 10, and as of late April the fence remained, a single sign fixed to its surface. The straw bale house was demolished April 15.
I’ve thought long and hard on my time at the Treaty Truckhouse, and always come back to perspective. There have been a few times in my life when I truly considered an opposing point of view and was shocked to feel, for a moment, the virtue of a cause I disagreed with. It’s a powerful exercise we rarely undertake, scrambling to reaffirm our own rightness rather than genuinely considering a different reality. In this way, we do ourselves a disservice.
My reality is one where the integrity of life and living systems is not only paramount, but essential for our own survival and the survival of all that is beautiful. From this perspective a heavy investment in fossil fuel infrastructure dumping brine into a river containing imperiled fish, invites criticism. Darlene’s reality is one of residential schools and the murder of aboriginal women, and when you consider the cultural disrespect which allowed for these things, you can read the traces of that disrespect on the signs of Alton Gas – no fires, no camping, no drugs, no alcohol. The connection she draws between the treatment of women and the treatment of rivers is a powerful one, even a startling one, which, while perhaps not universally true, contains enough truth for me to share it here.
Zack Metcalfe is a freelance journalist, columnist and author active across the Maritimes. This article was originally published with The Weekly Press.