A’Se’k – Boat Harbour: A Site of Centuries’ Long Mi’kmaw Resistance

By Colin Osmond

On October 4th, hundreds of people gathered at Pictou Landing First Nation and marched to A’Se’k (Boat Harbour, N.S.) to demand that the governments of Nova Scotia and Canada live up to their promise to stop the flow of toxic waste into the tidal lagoon. A’Se’k is the site of an effluent treatment facility handling wastewater from the nearby Northern Pulp Mill at Abercrombie Point, Pictou County.

Protestors Marching at A’Se’k- Courtesy of Michelle Francis Denny.

A sea of people in red shirts emblazoned with #31January2020, the planned closure of the Boat Harbour Treatment Facility, marched from the Pictou Landing Band office to the bridge that stands near the outfall of A’Se’k into the Northumberland Strait. Those who marched, both Mi’kmaq and settler, demand that the harbour be returned to its former state – A’Se’k, the tidal estuary that was a key part of Mi’kmaw life in Pictou County.

Waste water treatment Facility at Boat Harbour. Image from Wikimedia Commons

This is not the first time that the Mi’kmaq of Pictou Landing have protested the destruction of their land by toxic waste. In 2014, residents of Pictou Landing First Nation created a blockade near Indian Cross Point, the site of a major effluent leak from the pipe that carries millions of litres of effluent-laden water to Boat Harbour each day. These recent protests in Pictou Landing show how a community can stand up and successfully challenge governments and industrial giants.

The Mill has been an important part of the economic grid of Pictou County for decades, but the financial stability brought to some by smashing pulp into paper has come at the sacrifice of others. The Mi’kmaq, who live within a stone’s throw of the treatment facility, are reminded daily of the environmental and biological costs of pulp and paper in Pictou County. They have mobilized to change this for future generations of Mi’kmaq and settlers in Pictou County.

The Mill, circa 1990. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

This most recent battle for A’Se’k needs to be understood in the much longer history of Mi’kmaw efforts to protect their land rights in Pictou County. Many different groups have challenged Mi’kmaw sovereignty over A’Se’k and the area around it, and for centuries, the Mi’kmaq have resisted and protected their homeland. I will outline a few examples of these efforts in an attempt to show that these modern battles over A’Se’k are just the most recent examples of long-standing Mi’kmaw protection of their land and rights. Those of us who are new to the area (even if our ancestors have lived here for a few centuries) need to understand the complex history of A’Se’k in order to fully appreciate the efforts being made by the Mi’kmaq today.

Local Historian John Ashton reminds us that as far back as the 17th century, the Mi’kmaq battled Mohawk warriors invading what is now Pictou County, and stories about foreign Indigenous invaders being drowned by Mi’kmaq warriors near Caribou Island still circulate in the community.[1]

Beginning in the late 18th century, the Mi’kmaq faced a new threat- colonial settlement – as Scottish Highlanders began to settle the region. When these settlers arrived, the Mi’kmaq had a key village site located on the land between A’Se’k and the entrance to Pictou Harbour. The Mi’kmaq used the region for hunting, fishing, farming, and for protection from the brutal North Atlantic winds that blew down the Northumberland during winter. Regardless of those settled on the ground at Pictou seeing the sizable Mi’kmaw village at A’Se’k, hapless colonialists an ocean away signed away this key part of Mi’kma’ki to a disbanding regiment of soldiers from the American Revolutionary War, the 82nd Regiment of Foot. While the surveying of Mi’kmaw land to these soldiers had long-lasting political implications, few of these soldiers showed up to claim their land in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. As a result, the Mi’kmaq were mostly able to live in the region as they had for thousands of years, only now with a new market for their labour and goods in the village of Pictou.

Sketch painting of the entrance to Pictou Harbour in the early 19th Century. Note the Mi’kmaw Village stretching back towards A’Se’k, which is on the other side of the entrance to the Harbour.

In the years leading up to the War of 1812, the British colonial government of Nova Scotia (who had only ousted their French rivals in Mi’kma’ki half a century earlier) attempted to solidify their relationship with the Mi’kmaq in the likely case of an American invasion. They sent a representative of the Crown to Pictou to meet with the Mi’kmaq living at A’Se’k. After meeting with the Mi’kmaq and discussing colonial politics at length, the Crown’s man left with a troubling message. The Mi’kmaq refused to accept any gifts from him and told him that they would remain neutral in the prospective war until “they could form an opinion on the strength of the enemy.”[2] The Mi’kmaq expected that the colony would be invaded and that the invaders would conquer the British. When this came to pass, one Mi’kmaw man warned, “in the case of war, he, and a few others, could scalp all of the inhabitants [of the village of Pictou] in two nights.”[3] The relationship between the Mi’kmaq in Pictou County and the Colonial Government was tenuous, at best. The Mi’kmaq negotiated from a position of power. Pictou, in the early years of the 19th century, was a small outpost of colonial settlement. It was a long way from Halifax, the center of colonial power in Nova Scotia. The small, isolated, and still-forming settler population at Pictou had little impact on the Mi’kmaq living at A’Se’k.

This is the detail from a 1785 Survey Map of Pictou County. Boat Harbour is the body of water roughly centered on the map. Note the division of land for settlement, with no mention of Mi’kmaw occupation.

But battles for recognition of Mi’kmaw land rights at A’Se’k were not always potentially violent. Many came in the form of letters and petitions to the colonial government, and, as I will discuss below, the Mi’kmaw refusal to vacate their lands when settlers began to build their homes on them. In 1829, Chief James Lulan, a “sober, honest, and industrious…Chief of the Indians at Pictou” petitioned the government to recognize Mi’kmaw occupation and land rights between Moodie Point and A’Se’k, where they had been planting for “upwards of fifty years.”[4] Lulan complained that the settler who had pre-empted the land, Thomas Moodie, had prevented them from planting corn and wheat in the considerable clearing they had maintained for at least the past fifty years. Without the ability to plant crops, in addition to decreasing access to hunting grounds and fisheries due to increasing settlement, Lulan feared that his community would be destitute without a land base. Chief Lulan and his community pushed for their land to be surveyed as settlement increased in the early-to-mid 19th century, but the government had already surveyed the land to settlers, causing friction between the government’s settlement plans, and the Mi’kmaq refusal to uproot from lands they had occupied for centuries.

By 1831 the Mi’kmaq had maintained their presence at A’Se’k, despite attempts to remove them from the vicinity. Hugh Denoon, a Pictou merchant, wrote to Sir Rupert George, the Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia, to request one hundred acres of land “adjoining Boat Harbour, about three miles to the entrance of the Town of Pictou and on the southern side of the entrance to the Harbour.”[5] Denoon, a Scottish settler who had developed a friendly relationship with the Mi’kmaq, reported that the land could be purchased for £100, and that the failure to purchase it would result in tensions between the Mi’kmaq and settlers. Denoon stated that anything less than one hundred acres would be insufficient to provide a land base for the Mi’kmaq, and he hoped that the government would grant land to help relieve the pressure on “these unfortunate Indians.”[6] Denoon understood that the Mi’kmaq would not give up their land at A’Se’k, and he pushed for the government to act early to avoid conflict between settlers and the Mi’kmaq.

Four months later, George Smith, a settler living in Pictou, repeated Denoon’s calls for the government to recognize the Mi’kmaq claim to the land at A’Se’k. Smith reported that he found the “Indians so attached to their personal possession at the entrance of the Harbour that no other [place] would satisfy them” and that Moodie had agreed to sell the land to the Mi’kmaq.[7] Smith stated that the land was “very convenient and desirable for these poor people” and that if the land was not granted to them it would be difficult to find any other suitable land in the region that would meet their needs.[8] The Government, however, failed to secure the land for the Mi’kmaq, resulting in constant complaints by settlers and pushes by the Mi’kmaq for rights to their village site for the next several decades.

The Colonial Government began more concerted efforts to survey and reserve Mi’kmaw lands in Nova Scotia in the 1840s. Led by Sir Joseph Howe, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs for the Province of Nova Scotia and later Premier of the Colony, the Commission was tasked with visiting the various Mi’kmaw communities in Nova Scotia and ascertaining their land and property rights. For some, the Commission secured previously surveyed land and made them part of the colonial gridwork. For others, like the Mi’kmaq living around A’Se’k, the Commission was to listen to land issues and find suitable holdings that would provide them with ample space to build houses and develop agriculture.

Howe himself was unable to travel to Pictou due to other commitments in Halifax. In his stead, he appointed James Dawson, a merchant in the town of Pictou, as a government agent. His task was to “represent [Howe], and do with the Pictou Indians whatever your own judgement dictates concerning your attention within the scope of the Act, and having in mind that a permanent settlement and education of these people, not one based on relief, are the primary objects.”[9] Howe asked Dawson to gain a better understanding of the land situation at Moodie Cove and A’Se’k, and to decipher who owned the current title to the land.

Dawson had built a relationship with the Mi’kmaq over a period of twenty years, driven mostly by his self-confessed interest in the “civilization of the Indians.”[10] He was sympathetic to the Mi’kmaq land crisis, and reported that he had “long and deeply regretted that he could do little for them.”[11] Dawson believed that ‘civilization’ required education and religion, but he also believed that settlers and Mi’kmaq alike needed to live closely, as Mi’kmaq goods were “necessary for the settlers.”[12] Dawson also understood that all of these were of little utility if the Mi’kmaq were not provided with a sufficient land base that they could use to harvest timber, produce goods, obtain consistent wage labour, and educational and religious instruction. Dawson told Howe that religion, labour, and education efforts would remain “but preliminary to their settling in a piece of land and ultimately adopting regular civilized habits.”[13]

Dawson knew that the land around A’Se’k was the most desirable for encouraging the Mi’kmaq to engage with these new societal structures. But the Mi’kmaq themselves had many reasons for securing their land holdings at A’Se’k. They and their ancestors had used the land in this area as a village for centuries. They had also cleared a significant portion of land for agriculture, despite the government giving the title to settlers. Dawson maintained that even without Government title and surveys, the Mi’kmaq would always maintain “adverse possession[14] of A’Se’k. In a report on the history of the title to the tract of land at Moodie Point, Dawson stated to Howe that, despite the title having changed hands several times since the original grant in 1783,

…no one claiming it has ever had anything like possession of it until a few years ago, when it began to be sold in small lots…and the parties in doing so have had to drive the Indians from their clearings where they grow potatoes etc. The Indians are so passionately fond of this lot, as it affords them great facilities for the fishery.[15]

Increasing settlement resulted in a situation where the Mi’kmaq were “driven from one place to another till they have not a foothold left they can call their own. Their very burying grounds have in some instances been desecrated by the plough.”[16] As more settlers came to Mi’kma’ki in the mid 19th century, the land holdings that the Mi’kmaq had maintained through the early settlement period became contested and increasingly tenuous. The Mi’kmaq, however, never stopped battling to have their land rights recognized at A’Se’k.

Regardless of these consistent pleas over the first half of the 19th century, the Mi’kmaw land rights at A’Se’k were not properly recognized, and the Government continued to fail to secure any holdings for the Mi’kmaq in Pictou County. It is unclear why the government failed to do so, but the lack of responses by Howe to these several requests suggests that the Commission was understaffed and unable to handle the amount of correspondence and requests. Alternatively, they may have suffered from a lack of funds and were consequently unable to purchase any land. Perhaps it was both. Either way, the Government failed to make its intentions clear.

1879 Map showing the newly created Indian Reserves at A’Se’k. Source: Illustrated Historical Atlas of Pictou County, Nova Scotia (Toronto: J.H. Meacham and Company, 1879).

By 1863, the continual Mi’kmaw resistance and push for government recognition of their land rights finally resulted in an effort to secure land at A’Se’k. A special committee was struck by the House of Assembly to purchase land between A’Se’k and Moodie Cove out of proceeds from the sale of Indian lands elsewhere in Nova Scotia. [17] After nearly a hundred years of doing so, the Mi’kmaq finally received a small portion of their land at A’Se’k. The purchase was carried out in February of 1864. The 50-acre plot became known as the Fisher’s Grant Indian Reserve. It cost the Nova Scotia government $401.25.[18]

The survey and creation of the Fisher’s Grant Indian Reserve, between A’Se’k and the mouth of Pictou Harbour, was the starting point for decades of expansion of the boundaries of this postage stamp sized land grant. Indeed, from a meager fifty acres of land in 1864, the reserve grew to over 400 acres in 1928. This transformation over roughly sixty years was based on continual and consistent Mi’kmaw pressure to regain more of their land around A’Se’K. Transfers, exchanges, and outright government land purchases occurred in 1874, 1889, 1903, 1907, and 1928. Each of these changes to the Mi’kmaw land holdings at A’Se’k are detailed, important, and complicated. I will not attempt to describe them in short shrift here. Rather, what follows is a summary of the Mi’kmaw actions that led to an expansion of their reserve at A’Se’k.

It is important to understand that the changes to the boundaries of the Fisher’s Grant Reserve were not solely based on direct Mi’kmaw protest. That is, there were few petitions or direct letters sent by the Mi’kmaq to the government that asked for more land at A’Se’k in this time period. Indeed, much of the impetus for growth of the reserve came from settler complaints that the Mi’kmaq refused to stop using the land and resources in and around A’Se’k, regardless if they were on reserve or settler land.

The Mi’kmaq understood this territory as their own space, and they protested settler encroachment by simply refusing to stop using the space and resources around A’Se’k. The result was that settler land tenure was compromised, and rather than attempt to penalize the Mi’kmaq (which local officials and Indian Agents repeatedly stated was impossible), the local government and the Department of Indian Affairs chose rather to purchase or exchange lands to allow the Mi’kmaq to avoid offending settlers. The Department of Indian Affairs, and local settlers and officials knew that the Mi’kmaq would use the land and resources regardless of the presence of settlers, so instead they incorporated more of A’Se’k into the reserve boundaries.

Since the beginnings of European settlement, the Mi’kmaq of Pictou County maintained a village between A’Se’k and the mouth of Pictou Harbour. Even when it was signed away by British officials, the Mi’kmaq were not directly (or immediately) impeded in using their land in the ways they and their ancestors had for centuries. From this important Mi’kmaw land base, the Mi’kmaq expanded their usual uses of A’Se’k to now include a settler-market and a wage-labour economy. However, once settlers began to take up their land in the early years of the 19th century, conflict with the Mi’kmaq, who continued to use the land as their own, increased. The government failed to survey Mi’kmaw land in the early colonial period, and continued to do so until they finally purchased a small parcel of land at A’Se’k for the Mi’kmaq, which came after decades of consistent Mi’kmaw protest and resistance. This small parcel of land became the nucleus for Mi’kmaw efforts to regain control of the land around A’Se’k.

The Fisher’s Grant Reserve grew eight-fold over the next half century – a testament to the Mi’kmaw ability to maintain and increase their territory even in the most unlikely colonial odds. A’Se’k has been a staple part of Mi’kmaw life for centuries, and they have maintained their presence on the land despite being challenged by a series of formidable opponents: Mohawk Warriors, the British Empire, settlers, the Government of Nova Scotia, Canada, the Department of Indian Affairs, and most recently, industrial giants like Paper Excellence (the owners of Northern Pulp). Through all of this history, the Mi’kmaq have fought for their land, and today they to continue the fight to protect A’Se’k. They walk in the footsteps and shadows of generations of Mi’kmaq who have done the same.

Children at A’Se’k- Courtesy of Michelle Francis Denny

We are only a few short months from the planned closure of the Boat Harbour treatment facility- January 31st, 2020. In the unstable and precarious political climate in which we live, especially given that we are currently in the throes of one of the most crucial elections in recent Canadian history, the future of A’Se’k remains uncertain. It is unclear whether the politicians will keep their promises for #January312020. What is undeniably clear, however, is that the Mi’kmaq will continue to fight to turn toxic Boat Harbour back to bountiful A’Se’k.

Colin Osmond is a PhD Candidate at the University of Saskatchewan, where he conducts community-engaged historical research with the Pictou Landing First Nation. Colin is from Nova Scotia, and is the descendant of Scottish settlers who occupied Mi’kmaw land near A’Se’k.

Small editorial changes were made to this essay on Oct 18 2019.

[1] John Ashton, “The Battle of Fitzpatrick Mountain (Part 1)”, The New Glasgow News, March 30 2018. https://www.ngnews.ca/news/local/the-battle-of-fitzpatrick-mountain-part-1-197976/

[2] George Henry Monk to Sir George Provost, April 23 1808, Nova Scotia Archives, RG 1, vol. 430, Doc 145.

[3] George Henry Monk to Sir George Provost, April 23 1808, Nova Scotia Archives, RG 1, vol. 430, Doc 145.

[4] James Lulan, Chief of Pictou, to Sir Peregrine, Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia, March 2 1829, Nova Scotia Archives, Vol 430 (Indian Commissioner Series), File 168.

[5] Hugh Denoon and M. Dickason, to Sir Rupert George, March 8 1831, Nova Scotia Archives, Vol. 430, File 186A.

[6] Hugh Denoon and M. Dickason, to Sir Rupert George, March 8 1831, Nova Scotia Archives, Vol. 430, File 186A.

[7] George Smith, to Sir R. George, June 10 1831, Nova Scotia Archives, Vol. 430 (Indian Commissioner Series), File 186B.

[8] George Smith, to Sir R. George, June 10 1831, Nova Scotia Archives, Vol. 430 (Indian Commissioner Series), File 186B.

[9] Joseph Howe, Indian Commissioner, to James Dawson, Merchant, May 6 1842, Nova Scotia Archives, Indian Commissioner Series, Vol. 432, File 57.

[10] James Dawson to Joseph Howe, January 24 1842, Nova Scotia Archives, Indian Commissioner Series, Vol. 432, file 57.

[11] James Dawson to Joseph Howe, January 24 1842, Nova Scotia Archives, Indian Commissioner Series, Vol. 432, file 57.

[12] James Dawson to Joseph Howe, January 24 1842, Nova Scotia Archives, Indian Commissioner Series, Vol. 432, file 57.

[13] James Dawson to Joseph Howe, January 24 1842, Nova Scotia Archives, Indian Commissioner Series, Vol. 432, file 57.

[14] James Dawson to Joseph Howe, January 24 1842, Nova Scotia Archives, Indian Commissioner Series, Vol. 432, file 57. Emphasis Added.

[15] James Dawson to Joseph Howe, January 24 1842, Nova Scotia Archives, Indian Commissioner Series, Vol. 432, file 57.

[16] James Dawson to Joseph Howe, January 24 1842, Nova Scotia Archives, Indian Commissioner Series, Vol. 432, file 57.

[17] Samuel P. Fairbanks, Indian Commissioner, to Hon. Joseph Howe, Provincial Secretary, February 9 1863, Journal and Proceedings of the House of Assembly of the Province of Nova Scotia (Halifax: W. Compton & Co., 1863), Appendix No. 15, Pg. 2.

[18] Samuel P. Fairbanks, Indian Commissioner, “Cash Paid for Indian Reserves, and Interest Thereon, to 31st December, 1864,” Journal and Proceedings of the House of Assembly of the Province of Nova Scotia (Halifax: W. Compton & Co., 1865), Appendix No. 19, Pg. 4.


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