Nova Scotia

Natural measures helping protect sacred Mi'kmaw island damaged in storms

Chapel Island (Mniku) is being negatively impacted by coastal erosion and recent storms, and a long-term solution is being considered.

'Chapel Island is a sacred place and has been a sacred place since time immemorial'

Hay bales put in place along the coast of Chapel Island — or Mniku as the Mi'kmaq call the small island — in the southeastern corner of the Bras d'Or Lake. (Mi'kmaq Rights Initiative/Facebook)

Hay bales typically used to feed livestock are being used as a temporary barrier to protect one of Nova Scotia's sacred Mi'kmaw sites.

Chapel Island (Mniku) in Cape Breton has been damaged by storms that brought high winds and rain in recent months. 

The two-square kilometre island can be found in the southeastern corner of the Bras d'Or Lake, near Potlotek First Nation. In June 2006, it was designated a national historic site as the Mi'kmaq have used Chapel Island as a place for spiritual gatherings and governance for centuries.

"We know that Chapel Island is a sacred place and has been a sacred place since time immemorial," said Heather MacLeod-Leslie, senior archeologist with the Mi'kmaq Rights Initiative, also known as Kwilmu'kw Maw-klusuaqn Negotiation Office (KMKNO). 

"When you notice the problem, you need to act quickly to limit the damage, so that's what the hay bales are for. They're there to protect from the problem getting bigger and that erosion advancing further."

Finding a solution

MacLeod-Leslie said coconut fibre mats and logs were put in place in recent years at Chapel Island, but they were damaged by ongoing bouts of bad weather.

She said natural fibre or vegetation options are a preferred choice to mitigate coastal erosion as they tend to absorb wave impacts, whereas armour stone or retaining walls simply send waves elsewhere.

"You're really redirecting that energy someplace else, so it doesn't go away, so you're making it your neighbour's problem," said MacLeod-Leslie.

As a temporary measure, bales of hay are being used to absorb the impact of waves along the coast of Chapel Island. (Mi'kmaq Rights Initiative/Facebook)

Among the people working to protect Chapel Island are members of other Mi'kmaw-led groups, along with Potlotek community members and representatives from Parks Canada.

This is not the first time that KMKNO and Parks Canada have been working together on a project involving the preservation of Mi'kmaw culture.

MacLeod-Leslie said discussions are ongoing to find a more permanent solution to shield the island that is home to burial sites, dance circles and historic artifacts.

In the mid-18th century, a Roman Catholic church was built on the island. Since that time, thousands of Mi'kmaw people have visited the island each year to celebrate the Feast of St. Anne as a way of renewing their faith and reinforcing family ties. 

The senior level of government for the Mi'kmaq, known as the Grand Council or Santé Mawiómi or Mi'kmawey Mawio'mi, meets twice a year on the island to hold discussions and make decisions.

Collaborative effort

MacLeod-Leslie said there will be many people involved in the decision on how to best stop continued erosion. 

"It's going to be a collaborative effort, community-based decision because they are Mi'kmaw places in Mi'kmaw lands that are nationally recognized, as well as locally recognized," she said.

"I'm hoping that this summer, or before the next hurricane season gets really ramped up in the autumn of 2022, that we will have something more permanent in place."

MacLeod-Leslie said that regardless of the decision, any protective measures put in place will have to be monitored and maintained for years to come.



Erin Pottie


Erin Pottie is a CBC reporter based in Sydney. She has been covering local news in Cape Breton for 17 years. Story ideas welcome at