Film documents tiny Cape Breton village's battle for survival with Ottawa

The Atlantic Ocean threatened to destroy Gabarus, N.S., if its seawall wasn't repaired. Ottawa refused to do it, but the community continued its fight and won.

Only 78 details how Gabarus, N.S., fought to have its seawall repaired

The seawall in Gabarus, N.S., is shown before repairs were made by the federal government. A new documentary looks at how residents fought to have the seawall rebuilt. (Gene Kersey)

A tiny Cape Breton fishing village's battle with the federal government over the prospect of being destroyed by surging Atlantic Ocean waters is one of the subjects of a new documentary that debuts Sunday in Sydney, N.S.

The director of Only 78, Toronto filmmaker Jawad Mir, said he became aware of the plight of Gabarus, population 78, through an article in the Globe and Mail. The documentary looks at that plight, but also the larger community spirit in the village.

Gabarus was demanding the federal government pay to repair its crumbling seawall before a bad storm would destroy it, the wharf and the houses in the heart of the settlement. Even though the wall was built by the federal government in the 1940s, Ottawa was refusing to help with the repairs.

For Mir, the dismal picture of what might happen triggered a memory of his childhood in Pakistan when the mosque attended by his family, which belonged to a Muslim sect facing persecution, was "torn to pieces" by a mob.

Jawad Mir interviews Gabarus resident Wayne Dickie (left). (Jawad Mir)

He said his first thought was to help somehow, to create a public service message to support Gabarus.

"There are hundreds of communities under similar threat," he said.

He said he was inspired by a vibrant activist group in Gabarus. The Friends of Gabarus Society secured a pledge of $100,000 from the municipality and the province responded by doing an engineering study. Eventually the federal government committed $300,000, which was matched by the province, and the repairs were completed in 2014 under municipal management.

Although he's worked in film production for 25 years, this is Mir's first feature-length documentary. Financing was a problem; an attempt to raise funds through a Kickstarter campaign failed and he decided to spend his own money.

After four years and more than a dozen trips from Toronto, Only 78 is ready for screening.

Tonnes of armour stone were brought in to bolster the Gabarus seawall in 2014. (George Mortimer/CBC)

Mir said what has taken place in Gabarus is a story of triumph and he sees it as a model for other communities looking to better themselves.

"Gabarus is a benchmark for a driving force for making a big difference, because they kept on going," he said. "They didn't stop. You just cannot take 'no' for an answer from the government. They're there to serve you; you're not serving them."

Community activist Gene Kersey said he looks forward to Sunday's screening as "another communal experience as the village has gone through the process of laying a path towards the future."

Besides scoring the seawall repair, Gabarus won money in a regional competition to save its landmark lighthouse from being washed into the sea. It also raised funds to expand its firehall, which hosts meetings and events year round, Kersey said.

The film, he said, is another event that local people "will be able to look back upon as one of stepping stones to a future, unknown at the moment, but at least not one that we fear, or without as much apprehension as we might have faced about the future as we did in the past."

Only 78 will debut at Sydney's Highland Arts Theatre on Sunday at 2 p.m. There is no admission charge but donations are encouraged to cover basic costs.

Mir said the film has been accepted to the Atlantic International Film Festival in Halifax this September.


  • A previous version of this story suggested the federal government spent $700,000 to repair the Gabarus seawall. In fact, the federal government committed $300,000, the Nova Scotia government committed $300,000 and the Cape Breton Regional Municipality committed $100,000.
    Aug 18, 2017 10:15 AM AT