Now Or Never

As sea levels rise, this Mi'kmaq community is losing its land

The Mi'kmaq have been present on PEI for 10,000 years. But as sea levels rise, the Lennox Island First Nation is losing its land.

Erosion is eating away at Lennox Island, P.E.I.

The Lennox Island First Nation reserve is located just off the coast of Prince Edward Island. (Moira Donovan/CBC)
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On Lennox Island, the signs of climate change are everywhere.

The coastal cave where Gilbert Sark played as a child has disappeared. The beachside location where his family used to have cookouts has shrunk, and the area where they once set up the firepit is now underwater. And the sacred burial grounds of his ancestors have had to be relocated, to protect them from erosion.

Eventually, he worries his entire community may have to follow suit.

"This is my home," he said. "And we're losing it."

Sark grew up on this 540 hectare island on the north shore of Prince Edward Island, the home of the Lennox Island First Nation.

Gilbert Sark’s tattoos represent the many roles he plays in the community, including as an elder, pipe carrier and drum keeper for Lennox Island’s drum group. (Moira Donovan/CBC)
 

In his lifetime, he's seen the low-lying island steadily erode, jeopardizing homes and critical infrastructure, and prompting some to wonder if the future of Lennox Island lies on the mainland.

"For Lennox Island, I hope we actually figure out how we can slow down the erosion," he said. "And that, further down in the future, we figure out how to actually start relocating, and just get ready for that."

PEI vulnerable to sea level rise

The composition of the land on P.E.I. — there are no rocky shores, only sand and sandstone — makes the whole island vulnerable to erosion and sea level rise, but Lennox Island is eroding twice as fast as the mainland, according to research from the University of Prince Edward Island.

Under normal conditions, some coastal erosion is inevitable, but climate change is accelerating the process, as sea levels rise, storms and storm surge grow more severe, and the patterns of sea ice change, resulting in less protection for the shore in the winter.

Recently, Lennox Island has been losing roughly a hectare a year.

"It's really noticeable," said Sark.

Shoreline armouring on the bank near the community’s Catholic church and cemetery (Moira Donovan/CBC)

In some places, such as the graveyard for Lennox Island's Catholic church, the community has stopped erosion by armouring the shore with small boulders and cages of rocks.

"Basically, we saved our graveyard."

The community's powwow grounds. The highwater mark is visible in the foreground. (Moira Donovan/CBC)
 

A similar approach has been taken elsewhere, including at the causeway and bridge connecting Lennox Island to the mainland. Work is in the planning stages to protect other vulnerable spots in the community, with adaptations such as shoreline armouring or sacrificial reefs.

One spot that Sark hopes is protected is the community's powwow grounds, which he said has lost roughly a metre of land to erosion this year.

Erosion along the powwow grounds, where water has swept away the soil, causing the sod on top to slump over. Sark estimates they’ve lost a metre of land to erosion here his year. (Moira Donovan/CBC)

"Now that will only work for so long," he said. "If it's going to erode, you can slow it down and plan for it, but at the end of the day, you can't stop water."

The bridge and causeway connecting Lennox Island to the mainland. The causeway was badly damaged by a 2010 storm surge. Researchers say a storm surge of just three metres could wash out the causeway completely. (Moira Donovan/CBC)

Sark said the community's youth are well aware of the impending threat. When asked at a community meeting where they saw Lennox Island in 50 years, "they all put up their hands and said 'underwater.'"

Sark said that as a solution, the youth suggested building houses on land the community has purchased on the mainland.

"They're going to be the ones running the show," he said. "I feel confident in our young ones that they're going to make the right decisions."

Gilbert Sark points to the plaque erected by the federal government to mark 10,000 years of Mi’kmaq presence on the island, based on carbon dating of artifacts. The plaque is in english, french and Mi’kmaq. (Moira Donovan/CBC)
 

But even if the community of Lennox Island is reconstituted in a different place, Sark said something will be lost if the island disappears.

"We've been here for over 10,000 years, only to find out, you know, after 10,000 years, we're finally losing our home."

"I've only been here 40 years, okay. But my ancestors have been here for way longer. We lose Lennox, we lose a part of us."