Unnatural Landscapes

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Unnatural Landscapes — a documentary film that I produced and Montreal filmmaker Bernar Hébert directed — takes viewers on a journey through 32,000 hectares of marshlands in the Canadian provinces of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Along the way, viewers are encouraged to reflect on what it means for a landscape to be “natural.” The film is now available at: http://unnaturallandscapes.ca.

For over three centuries, this landscape has been protected from the tides of the Bay of Fundy, the largest in the world, by structures that made it possible to farm on drained land that had once been salt marsh. After World War II, these structures — dykes that held back the tides and aboiteaux that allowed water to drain out from the fields — were deteriorating. In response, the Canadian government created the Maritime Marshland Rehabilitation Administration (MMRA) to reconstruct or replace them, sometimes succeeding and other times creating new environmental problems.

Building on interviews with individuals who had a variety of connections with the dykelands, the film focuses on the legacy of the MMRA, taking the viewer through three different landscapes that have existed since the arrival of European settlers. First, there was the original salt marsh that — prior to the arrival of Acadian settlers in the seventeenth century — had supported life, both human and non-human, in the ancestral and unceded territory of the Mi’kmaq First Nation.

Salt Marsh, Windsor, NS. Photo by Jean-Loup Pinard

Marsh grasses thrived as the tides deposited rich sediment twice daily. But the Acadians wanted to farm as they had in France and so leaned upon techniques they brought with them to drain the marshes so as to create arable land; and following the mid-eighteenth century deportation of the Acadians, their English-speaking successors kept up this second nature landscape, dykelands that replaced the original salt marshes.

Dykeland, Grand-Pré, NS. Photo by Jean-Loup Pinard

Until the early twentieth century, marsh owners profited from the dykelands, mostly growing hay. One dykeland area in southeastern New Brunswick became known as the “largest hayfield in the world.” But the hay economy collapsed with the introduction of the internal combustion engine which reduced the demand for hay to feed horses so that farmers could no longer afford to keep up their dykes and aboiteaux, leading to the frequent flooding of their lands.

Flooding at Grand-Pré, NS, mid-1940s. Acadia University Archives; with permission of Ruth Conrad

As a result, by the 1940s there were frequent reports of land going “out to sea,” to use the expression of the time, in some cases allowing the salt marsh to return. When he visited the region in 1943, E.S. Archibald, the director of the Dominion Experimental Farms, observed that “a very large number of dykes had gone out in the last month with the excessively high tides and others may go out during this week especially if storms accompany the extraordinarily high tides which are prevailing. Already thousands of acres of good hay land have been flooded and the hay crop largely ruined for the next year or two.”[1]

In response to this crisis, in 1948 the Canadian government created the Maritime Marshland Rehabilitation Administration to bring the use of machinery to a job that had previously been done by hand. Before winding down its operation in 1970, the MMRA had rehabilitated (through reconstruction or replacement) nearly 400 kilometres of dykes and more than 400 aboiteaux, allowing farmers to work their lands once again. In the process, however, three centuries of farmers collectively looking after the dykeland through organizations known as marsh bodies came to an end. The marsh bodies were largely replaced by government agencies. This shift in control is described both in Unnatural Landscapes, and in Léonard Forest’s 1954 film, Les Aboiteaux, or in English, The Dikes.

Excavating with Machines, John Lusby Marsh, NS. Nova Scotia Department of Agriculture (Nappan, NS)

In addition to restoring second nature through reconstruction of dykes and aboiteaux, the MMRA also constructed dams across a number of the major tidal rivers that flowed into the Bay of Fundy. In this regard, during his 1943 visit, Archibald suggested “blocking off tidal water in these areas, and putting a large aboiteau (dam) at the mouth of the stream.”[2] He figured that such dams would allow farmland to be protected from the tides without the expense of reconstructing dykes and aboiteaux upstream. Before transferring control to the New Brunswick and Nova Scotia governments in 1970, the agency constructed five such dams, in the process creating a new landscape, a third nature, which was marked by the creation of fresh water headponds upstream, as well as the buildup of massive quantities of sediment immediately downstream from the dams, silt which would have previously been distributed along the length of the now-truncated rivers.

Aerial photo of Petitcodiac Causeway. Photo courtesy of Daniel LeBlanc

The impact of the MMRA’s dam construction program was most pronounced in regard to a structure, completed in 1968, which blocked the Petitcodiac River, in the process creating a new river crossing between Moncton and its growing suburbs. While the headpond provided a fresh-water lake that became a central element of the lives of those suburban residents, the Petitcodiac Causeway also resulted in the destruction of fish stocks (unable to negotiate the dam and its fishway) and the narrowing of the river downstream from the dam (due to the accumulation of silt). Following a forty-year campaign to reopen the river, the dam’s gates were permanently opened in 2010, and the structure that housed those gates will soon be replaced by a bridge.

By providing a tour through these landscapes, Unnatural Landscapes encourages viewers to think about what we mean when we refer to “nature.”

Unnatural Landscapes is designed to accompany Ronald Rudin’s book on the history and legacy of the MMRA, which is nearing completion.

[1] Library and Archives Canada, RG17 3295, part 1, Archibald to Deputy Minister of Agriculture, 17 September, 1943.
[2] Ibid.
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Ronald Rudin, author of seven books and and producer of eight documentary films, carries out research that touches upon the cultural and environmental history of Atlantic Canada.

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