From his country home, Blair MacLennan can see the thick forests where he and his friends played, and the brook where they caught trout. In the middle of an idyllic Cape Breton scene, he can also see the beginnings of a strip mine, where diggers and dump trucks scavenge over a bulldozed earth.
MacLennan, who lives less than a kilometre from the mine site, can recite its details as if it were a cautionary Cape Breton ballad. The mine will go down 1,000 feet and require daily blasting of gypsum every day for the next 20 years. Each blast, preceded by a shrill alarm that will ring through the valley, will carry enough force to shake his house. Then, the rocks will he hauled out of the mine and run through a big crushing machine before trucks, leaving every 15 minutes, pull out on the Trans-Canada Highway where his son and daughter wait every morning for their school bus.
When Georgia-Pacific applied for a permit, and was assiduously lobbying the Mi'kmaq, the impact on the MacLennans and eight other families living around the site was treated as a postscript. The company gave them a written warning, and later offered to buy them out.
But MacLennan was not willing to give up so easily. He had just built a new house, and although he spends much of his year working on distant construction sites, away from his children - as Cape Bretoners have done for generations - he wanted them to grow up on the same land he had.
He and his neighbours, who formed the Melford Concerned Citizens group, went to the local media and contacted national interest groups such as the Salmon Association of Canada (because of the local stream) and Transport 2000 (because of the local high-way). They spent $3,000 for an environmental consultant to prepare a study to accompany the court challenge they were planning.
In their favour was the site's proximity to the Bornish Hill Protected Area, a forested ridge that is one of only seven protected areas in Nova Scotia. Stewart and the WWF had been able to do little on the environmental front, but the residents believed that they knew someone else who could, someone whose very name sends shivers up the spine of Nova Scotia politicians. They called Elizabeth May.
A lawyer and environmental dynamo, May is the Erin Brockovich of Cape Breton. She is also executive director of the Sierra Club of Canada, and has a better sense of politicians and the media than most activists. Last spring, she went on a hunger strike on Parliament Hill to demand that more attention be paid to cleaning up a toxic-waste area in Sydney, known as the tar ponds, left behind by the defunct steel mill.
When she heard the story of a dozen families being pushed aside by a big mining project, she could not resist. She went to Melford from her home in Ottawa and met the residents in MacLennan's kitchen. She told them that they had a great court case, and urged them to prepare for battle.
The Sierra Club lined up lawyers, drummed up some media interest and prepared the residents to go to the province's Supreme Court to block Georgia-Pacific's mining permit. A case was filed in the name of Mary Chisholm, a 64-year-old nurse who had worked for years in Montreal before returning to her family's homestead for a quiet, peaceful retirement. She now lives down the hill from the MacLennans.
Chisholm, who is timid and had never been in a public spat before, was not sure what to expect. She certainly did not anticipate someone like Felmer Cummins. As soon as the case was filed, the man from Atlanta began to call. "Oh, he tried to sweet-talk me," Chisholm says.
The company offered a "replacement value" for the homeowners on the mine's periphery, and a negotiable amount of "nuisance money" to those living more than 800 metres away.
Three concerned citizens, including MacLennan's brother, took the money and moved. The others, including Chisholm, were not prepared to budge. This was their birthplace. Besides, they had been assured by the Sierra Club that their case was solid. What they were not told about was the new generation of Mi'kmaq deal-makers.
As the court date approached, and the Mi'kmaq grew nervous that their deal with Georgia-Pacific was in danger, Bernd Christmas decided to call Elizabeth May.
The two lawyers, as polished as their causes, knew each other. They hoped to work together on much bigger projects, especially as the oil industry looked to Nova Scotia for development. But Christmas wanted to make one thing clear: He was not about to trade jobs for a bunch of forest. "I had to explain to Elizabeth sort of the history. . . . We fought so hard to get to this point where a company takes us seriously."