The mood was one of gratitude and celebration at the Paqtnkek Health Centre, the morning of Jan. 15, for what most in attendance were not shy to describe as a monumental development for Paqtnkek Mi’kmaw Nation.
Guests and community members packed the building, leaving only standing room. Local, regional, provincial and federal politicians marked the official opening of the Highway 104 interchange.
The completion of the interchange represents years of hard work and collaboration on all levels of government, said Chief Paul ‘PJ’ Prosper.
In a speech to guests, the chief emphasized that the interchange allows the people of Paqtnkek “to dream and tell our story.”
“This story breaks the cycle of dependency through opportunity,” Prosper said. “It’s a story that begins with denial and ends with reconciliation, and it defines us as a vibrant, healthy and proud Mi’kmaw community.”
Prosper noted the work to make the interchange a reality has been going on since the 1960s, when Highway 104 was first built in the area.
Prosper described the completed interchange as “the culmination of years of work between the federal, provincial and municipal governments.”
Prosper acknowledged the contributions of successive chiefs and councillors over the course of the many years Paqtnkek has worked towards building the interchange.
“It has been a complex undertaking involving many levels of government, industry, and various extraordinary and gifted people,” Prosper said.
“We’ve had a number of votes and a number of community sessions, and after many hours of discussion and work – and looking ahead – we all know that when an Aboriginal community like Paqtnkek is successful, in a project like this, it means certain success and benefits for the surrounding communities,” Prosper said.
Prosper also took time to give credit to Rose Paul, the director of economic development for Paqtnkek, describing her as “the thread that connected everything together” throughout the process.
In response, Paul, who also served as emcee for the event, asked everyone to give applause to the band and councillors for their dedication.
Speaking to the Casket after the formal portion of the event, Prosper expressed his pride at seeing the turnout.
“There are a lot of people who contributed to the success of the project. It involved all three levels of government, and industry,” Prosper said as the crowd mingled. “Through our efforts, we were able to achieve success. This is a milestone in the history of our people, and the journey since the 60s.”
Prosper added that “we’re grateful and looking forward to the opportunities the interchange brings for our community, and the surrounding community.”
“The Mi’kmaw were the original road builders of Nova Scotia,” contended Lloyd Hines, MLA for Guysborough-Eastern Shore-Tracadie and provincial Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal, said in a speech to guests.
“They traveled the rivers of the province for commerce, celebration, and food – and the river was their expressway,” Hines said, adding that he hopes the interchange serves as bridge between communities, and to prosperity and a brighter future.
Hines commended Paqtnkek for the work done to make the interchange a reality, remarking that “no grass is growing under Paqtnkek’s feet,” referring to the fact that work continues on the Bayside Travel Centre, a significant economic development for the community that will also benefit from the improved access the interchange provides.
Later, Paul alluded to the fact that the Bayside Travel Centre will open in spring 2019, extending thanks to the businesses which have collaborated with the community to make that a reality as well.
“Thanks to all of you, for making our long-term vision a reality for the community,” Paul said. “This is just the beginning.”
While speaking to the crowd, Hines said the “essence of good government is the co-operation between three levels of government, committed to ensure safe, connected communities.”
Hines stressed that connection between communities as critical to their success, growth and prosperity – noting that the interchange will accomplish such a connection.
Marco Mendicino, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Infrastructure and Communities, compared the economic boon the interchange will be for Paqtnkek to the benefits the second berth about to be constructed in the Port of Sydney will have for the city and the province as a whole.
“The interchange will do a number of things. First, it will improve road safety. Those of you who drive on the 104 know, at times, it can be particularly perilous, because of weather and traffic flow,” Mendicino said. “[The interchange] is going to bring tremendous economic opportunities for the community, increasing the potential for tourism, investment and business development.”
Most important of all, Mendicino noted, is the step toward reconciliation the interchange will be, as it will improve access to reserve lands that were previously disconnected from the highway. This particular point roused the crowd to strong applause.
Rodger Cuzner, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Labour and MP for Cape Breton-Canso, spoke with pride about how the new interchange is an economic step forward.
Cuzner stressed how “infrastructure is a key investment” in creating economic opportunities in a community. He added the opening of the interchange “has unlocked so much potential” for the people and economy of Paqtnkek.
Municipality of the County of Antigonish Warden Owen McCarron praised Chief Prosper and the staff of Paqtnkek for their commitment to seeing the project through to completion.
In his address to guests, McCarron described “a lot of years and perseverance” as being crucial to seeing the interchange through to its fruition.
McCarron alluded to the Friendship Accord between the county and Paqtnkek, saying, “we share wisdom to build a better future for our children and the generations to follow. We are two communities committed to trusting, respecting and celebrating one another, our ancestors and their environment. Today, we celebrate you, Paqtnkek.”
Some quick facts
• The interchange will provide 100-series highway access to Paqtnkek lands. This access was severed during the construction of Highway 104 in the 1960s.
• The interchange is a $15.3 million project. Of that, the province and federal governments provided $8.9 million and $6.4 million, respectively, in support.
• The interchange is anticipated to encourage residential expansion and commercial development, with the access it provides to reserve lands across the highway.
• The interchange is diamond-shaped, and includes north and south connector roads, as well as a highway underpass.