Named as North America’s first beluga whale sanctuary, this small town faces an uncertain future with almost camera-ready grit and enthusiasm
By Alec Bruce
There’s something about the tiny Nova Scotia settlement of Sherbrooke that makes you think you’ve stumbled on to the set of a feel-good movie of the week. People here always seem to be getting ready for their rosy-cheeked closeups.
When the California-based Whale Sanctuary Project announced, in February, it was making this coastal hamlet of 400 the new foster home (the first in North America and only the second in the world) for about six aquarium-bred beluga whales, no-one was happier than Hughie MacDonald, a local fisherman who stood to lose the most should one of those cetaceans get loose and eat his catch. But was he worried?
“I’m delighted,” he said, when asked about this in April. “This is exactly what we need.” The 55-year veteran longliner, who lives in town with his wife Helen when he’s not on the water, added with a shrug, “Those whales can’t feed themselves. They’ve been living in tanks all their lives. I’ve got the fish if they need them.”
Move along and you might come to the offices of the St. Mary’s River Association, where members fight to protect the storied stream—the place where, rumour has it, baseball legend Babe Ruth learned to angle for salmon—against any number of industrial predations. Elsewhere, in historic Sherbrooke Village, you might find costumed re-enactors going about their ersatz 19th-century business, to the delight of tourists from as far away as Wollongong, Australia.
In fact, just about everywhere, the air vibrates with a confidence and cheerfulness that few outsiders would ever associate with a community this small and rustic. Not even the inexorable march of COVID-19 seems to dampen spirits accustomed to reinventing themselves. Now, facing a deeply unsettling future along with just about everybody else in the world, Sherbrooke’s talent for telling a good story well about itself is key to its survival. Fortunately, it’s had a lot of practice over the past 200 years or so.
Not long after its founding, sometime between 1812 and 1817, Nova Scotia lawyer, judge, and novelist Thomas Haliburton declared in his Historical and Statistical Account of Nova Scotia: “The township possesses many important natural advantages, and only requires population and industry, with an addition to its capital, to render it one of the most populous and thriving settlements in Nova Scotia.”
Well, not quite. Still, says Stephen Flemming, Executive Director of Sherbrooke Village Museum: “The Sherbrooke area, and for that matter Guysborough County as a whole, have so many people that are positive and willing to embrace change that it has been a sheer delight to be engaging people in several community planning exercises. Without exception, every time I throw out an idea for consideration, it comes back richer and deeper than even I imagined. The place is full of keeners.”
That’s not to say there aren’t rules here. Sherbrooke is profoundly protective of its physical environment—air, woods, water, shore. It’s also devoted to its history—houses, shops, parks. Respect these, and a visitor or prospective resident (yes, people actually do move here to settle down) will get along just fine.
Flemming took the better part of a lifetime to get back to this community where he feels most at home. “I spent most of my career out west working for Parks Canada, but I spent much of my childhood summers on the St. Mary’s River and in the Sherbrooke area,” he says. “This is where I developed my keen interest in history and wildlife conservation. So, when I had a chance to return, I grabbed it. I wanted to give back to where I grew up. I feel, in a way, I can do a lot of more creative things here than I can anywhere else.”
Apparently, so do his fellow citizens, and they love what’s he’s done with the place. Over the past five years, since his arrival in 2015, tourist traffic to the Village has jumped 27 per cent from the 2011-14 period (136,000 compared with 98,000). During the regular May-October season, people have come from all over Canada, the United States, Europe and Australia. Last November, Old-Fashioned Christmas Week alone drew more than 6,000 from across the province.
“We’ve been shifting things up at the Village in recent years,” Flemming explains. “It’s a more first-person experience than before. When you walk in, for example, it really is like walking into a town in the 1860s. All the interpreters are in character. The general store clerk is going to try to sell you something. The farmer’s going to be leading a horse, and he’s probably going to smell like one, too.”
Verisimilitude yields to the genuine article, however, when you spend any time on the fabled St. Mary’s River. Traversing 250 kilometres through the counties of Guysborough, Antigonish, Pictou, and Colchester, and the eastern reaches of Halifax Regional Municipality, it cuts through Sherbrooke before emptying into the Atlantic Ocean at Sonora. Its east, west, north, and main branches are among the most important habitats for wild Atlantic salmon in the Maritimes. Or, as the St. Mary’s River Association’s president Scott Beaver said recently, “We are the river system in Nova Scotia that for years has been sending our large fish to repopulate other rivers.”
He was speaking at a Halifax news conference he helped organize in February with the Nova Scotia Salmon Association and the Atlantic Salmon Federation to oppose the proposed development of an open pit gold mine mere steps from the river’s edge, northwest of Sherbrooke. “This development could undermine everything we’ve done,” he said. “The St. Mary’s River is the last best hope for salmon recovery in, arguably, all of the Maritimes. We have invested more than $1 million since 2014 to improve habitat for wildlife and recently received a $1.2 million federal grant to continue the work.”
To understand why that message might resonate well in this community, you have to wade into history. For nearly 100 years spanning the 19th and early 20th centuries, Goldenville—sitting a mere five kilometres from Sherbrooke’s front stoop—led the province in gold production. More than 200,000 ounces of the stuff came from there before its exhausted mine shut down in 1941, leaving behind tonnes of toxic mercury and arsenic waste. The Nova Scotia government only recently got around to assessing the amount of time (years) and dollars (millions) required to clean it up.
Given these lessons, few want to be seen promoting heavy industry in this, of all places. “There’s many other opportunities for economic growth in St. Mary’s,” Central Nova Member of Parliament Sean Fraser, who represents Sherbrooke and supports Beaver’s efforts to restore and preserve the river, told the Guysborough Journal in February. “Frankly, I think the greatest opportunity for economic growth for the next generation in Canada is by investing in the transition to a low carbon economy and protecting more of our nature.”
It’s also much better for broadcasting rosy-cheeked close-ups. If it’s hard to capture Sherbrooke’s ingenuity and indefatigable spirit in these troubled times by pointing to a giant hole in the ground, the new Whale Sanctuary Project is tailor-made for the task—a feel-good movie script that practically writes itself.
When the Project’s executive director, Charles Vinick, announced the selection of Sherbrooke’s seaside companion community, Port Hilford, as the site of the refuge at a Halifax news conference in February, the news made headlines everywhere, instantly branding the area as the “Free Willy” capital of the world. “Canada proposed as site of captive whale sanctuary,” blared the BBC. “A tranquil setting and a seafood meal plan,” quipped The Guardian.
Vinick, an environmental warrior of more than three decades on the front lines with the likes of Jacques Cousteau, said, “Of the hundreds of locations that we’ve researched in British Columbia, Washington State and Nova Scotia, Port Hilford stands out as the premier location for a whale sanctuary. Our objective is to welcome the first animals before the end of 2021.”
For his part, Flemming enthused, “This is a first, a truly outstanding project. The museum, through the Rural Institute for Cultural Heritage and Environmental Sustainability, has been pleased to assist the work. I couldn’t be more pleased that this group of distinguished experts chose Nova Scotia for their first sanctuary.”
It wasn’t easy. The California animal welfare group —the first organization of its kind that focuses exclusively on creating seaside sanctuaries in North America for orcas and beluga whales who have either been retired from entertainment facilities or rescued from the ocean and need rehabilitation or permanent care—spent two years looking for the right mix of physical and environmental factors, including sea-floor conditions, tides and currents, and potential impacts of local wildlife.
In fact, by these standards, Sherbrooke wasn’t the first choice. Mushaboom, near Sheet Harbour, was actually more technically suitable. But, as Vinick said, “As important as the physical properties of the location are in deciding on a location, we also knew that the relationship the sanctuary would have with its host community would be pivotal. The Sherbrooke community has exceeded all our expectations. You couldn’t ask for a more welcoming and eager community than the Sherbrooke area.”
His boss, Whale Sanctuary Project President Lori Marino, a neuroscientist and animal behaviourist, wholeheartedly agreed. “They’ve been holding special activities for the kids,” she said. “It’s as though they’ve already made the whales part of their community. And the town already has the feel of a sanctuary.”
Exactly. Sanctuary. Indeed, that’s as good a characterization of Sherbrooke on any day of the year, whales or not. “Two ideas that people wanted to get behind right away was the notion that the Sherbrooke area could be a centre of excellence for experiential tourism, and sure, while we are at it, let’s be the host community for the first Whale Sanctuary in North America,” Flemming says. “We may have few people, and like much of rural Canada, we sometimes struggle for economic viability, but that doesn’t hinder thinking big and working to achieve better.”
That’s not to say everyone here always concurs with neighbourly consensus about the shape of Sherbrooke’s future. While fisherman Hughie MacDonald thinks the world of the new whale sanctuary, he also believes there’s room for a new gold mine.
“Why not? It’s gold, after all.”
But perhaps that’s another movie, another close-up, for another time.