A coalition of activists, scientists and land defenders are celebrating in Nova Scotia this week, following the cancellation of a proposal that could have seen a piece of biodiverse coastal parkland ground to sand.
In 2019, the provincial government delisted a 285-hectare provincial park reserve called Owl’s Head, on the eastern shore of Nova Scotia, to sell the land to an American billionaire couple. Beckwith and Kitty Gilbert planned to build a series of golf courses and luxury homes on the site.
The revelation kicked off vigorous opposition across the province and quickly became one of Nova Scotia’s most hot-button environmental issues.
On Tuesday, Lighthouse Links Development, the company behind the proposal, released a statement announcing it had withdrawn from the December 2019 letter of offer, saying: “We have concluded that we do not have the support of the government of Nova Scotia necessary to make this project a reality.”
The news came as a welcome surprise for advocates, who have deployed a wide array of tactics over the past two years — including petitions, ceremonies and scientific monitoring — to stop the project from moving forward. Environmental groups pooled their money for a court action, which, if successful, could force provinces to consult with residents before deciding the fate of public lands.
“It's really amazing and overwhelming,” said Sydnee McKay, who grew up in the community next to Owl’s Head and started the Facebook group that’s been an organizing node opposing the sale. “It goes to show that the people in Nova Scotia really do care about the land and preserving it.”
Before news the park was delisted became public, residents had spent years assuming the barrens, wetlands and granite ridges within its boundaries were fully protected.
But as it turned out, the area was a park in name only, having never received full legal protection from the province.
Had the development proceeded, the project would have proposed converting some of the granite ridges into sand for the golf courses. The project was pitched as a way to bring jobs and revenue to a part of the province that has experienced a shrinking population and a lack of economic opportunity.
In 2019, the Nova Scotia government delisted a 285-hectare provincial park reserve called Owl’s Head on the eastern shore of Nova Scotia to sell the land to an American billionaire couple. #Biodiversity #Ecosystems #LandProtection
At the time, then-Lands and Forestry Minister Iain Rankin said the decision to delist Owl’s Head reflected the fact “there isn't high biodiversity value” compared to other sites proposed for legal protection.
But scientists — including within the provincial government — have disputed that characterization, noting Owl’s Head is home to a “globally rare” ecosystem, the broom crowberry coastal heathland. In the last two years, researchers have also documented the biodiversity of the area and have started sampling the park’s wetlands and eelgrass meadows to assess the amount of carbon stored in those ecosystems.
For Elizabeth Marshall, a Mi'kmaq Grandmother from Eskasoni First Nation, the devaluing of the area was enough of a concern that she recently travelled four hours from her community to the rocky coastline at Owl’s Head to participate in a water ceremony with other grandmothers.
“That place is a paradise,” said Marshall, rejecting the idea the area has little biodiversity value. “I went there because I want to demonstrate to my ancestors, and to the Creator, my love for creation by asserting our title and sovereignty.”
Marshall said the secrecy around the sale — which included the developer asking to delay consultation with Indigenous communities until a purchase of the lands had been signed — was “colonization in a nutshell.”
“We’ve had to engage with this kind of colonial attitude for a long time. But we don’t have to put up with it anymore,” said Marshall. In recent weeks, Marshall had shifted her opposition strategy, urging park supporters to contact the developer to express support for the grandmothers.
“We have to stand up for the next generation because they deserve better than what these men are promising.”
A request for comment to Field Point Capital Management Company, Beckwith Gilbert’s private equity firm, was not returned.
The secrecy of the sale also prompted a lawsuit at Nova Scotia’s Supreme Court, where a retired provincial biologist and a citizens’ group asked for a judicial review of the province’s decision to delist the park, arguing the process had been flawed.
“Obviously, there was no consultation about the actual decision to delist Owl’s Head,” said Jamie Simpson, the group’s lawyer.
“That was the most important aspect of this that we saw, that there ought to be an obligation on government to let the public know before it goes ahead with decision-making on issues like this.”
The application was dismissed and is currently in the appeal process. Given the project has now been abandoned, the appellants are deciding whether to push ahead.
If it were to proceed, Simpson said the appellants intend to push for the introduction of a public trust doctrine into common law — the core principle of which is that the state holds public lands in trust for the benefit of citizens. If adopted, the government could be required to consult before charging ahead with decisions involving public land, he added.
“In our view, that would encourage a far better decision-making process and avoid the crazy situation that developed with Owl’s Head, where the public was just completely shut out of the process and all the frustration that resulted from that.”
Because the appeal also has the potential to impact Canadian common law, it has attracted the attention of other organizations. In a hearing on Wednesday, both sides agreed to an application by Ecojustice to act as an intervenor in the case.
Sarah McDonald, a staff lawyer in Ecojustice’s Halifax office, said Ecojustice applied for interventor status because it felt the case would set an important precedent by requiring governments to notify the public before making decisions around public lands.
The next appeal date is scheduled for May 12, 2022.
In the meantime, advocates say even at Owl’s Head, the work isn’t finished.
As part of her contribution towards protecting Owl’s Head, Beverley Isaacs, who lives nearby, has been leading visitors on walking tours of the area. Now that the company has withdrawn its offer, she’s hoping the province will invest in boardwalks or other infrastructure to help more people experience the area and bring sustainable economic development to the community.
More importantly, she and other activists hope the government will listen to people in the province and provide full legal protection to Owl’s Head and approximately 150 other sites in Nova Scotia awaiting legal protection.
“I think, for some people, they don't want to get involved in this stuff because they think that our voices are never going to be heard, that it's a losing battle with the government,” she said. “I think this shows that our voices are being heard and we shouldn't give up — we should continue for what is right for the people of Nova Scotia.”