A small Mi’kmaq community in Nova Scotia pins its future on a $15 million highway interchange. 

Rose Paul reaches for a box of fading, archived letters sitting on her filing cabinet at the band office of Paqinkek Mi’kmaw Nation. 

“Here’s a letter from 1977, telling us we could not get full access to the other half of our own reserve, which was cut off when they built the Trans Canada Highway,” she says. “Instead, the province offered to lease us a small piece of land near the highway so we could see ‘Indian crafts'”.

That offer was politely declined.

Forty years later, the small, tight-knit community of 450 residents, about 15 minutes down the highway from Antigonish, is now on the verge of something much more lucrative than selling baskets.

After years of frustration of not having full access to its land, the band successfully negotiated what it sees as a win-win deal with the provincial and federal governments; Paqtnkek gets a $15.3 million interchange for future economic development (including a provincial commitment to maintain the roads). Governments can claim credit for job creation while reaping the benefits of future tax revenue.

On July 13th, community members voted 96 percent in favour of surrendering the reserve and fee simple land required for the project. Construction will start as early as this fall and will take up to 30 months to complete.

The real prize is much more than land and concrete; with access to both sides of the 104 Trans-Canada for the first time since the mid-1960s, planning is well underway to create a highway commercial centre as a gateway to scenic Cape Breton.

Already, businesses are knocking at the door.

We’re talking now with potential leaseholders,” says Paul. “They see our location halfway between Antigonish and Port Hawkesbury as a great opportunity, more of a destination attraction than a stop-and-go service centre. Along with this commercial and retail development, we’ll have environmentally-protected areas and green spaces for families to enjoy.” 

Paul and her colleagues are studying similar roadside development built at Membertou, Millbrook and Glooscap First Nations in Nova Scotia. Those communities have successfully boosted own-source revenues by leasing space for gas stations, convenience stores, retail outlets, food services and entertainment venues.

The band is also looking to northern New Brunswick and the success of the Grey Rock Power Centre at the Madawaska-Maliseet First Nation. The first tenant last year in its new strip mall was nation furniture giant The Brick. There’s also a large Ford dealership on site.

The possibilities are not lost on Owen McCarron, deputy warden of the Municipality of the County of Antigonish.

“The benefits of this highway development will be felt well beyond Paqtnkek,” says McCarron. “It brings with it economic development, opportunities to interact with visitors and employment for the whole area.” 

The band is also developing closer ties with the town of Antigonish, which is the main service centre for the entire region. And recently, the Antigonish Chamber of Commerce invited Paul to sit on its economic development committee. To Chief Paul (PJ) Prosper, first elected four years ago, it’s all about opportunity and self-sufficiency.

“For years, our young people have had to leave home to find work. Now, if we play our cards right and keep that vision, we see the day when commercial and retail opportunities offer good-paying jobs right here. And we’ll have new residential subdivisions on both sides of the highway where our members can live and raise their families.” 

The community’s ‘yes’ vote means the band also stands to receive $2.3 million in compensation. It would cover the 67 acres of land needed for the project, the replacement of seven homes and for reduced property values on four others.

Chief Prosper says it’s been a long time coming.

“Our ancestors, the community leader who believed that we could take charge of our own destiny one day, would be so proud of what we’re trying to accomplish,” he said. “And we’re certainly proud of how we’ve developed these agreements with Nova Scotia and Canada based on trust and mutual understanding. We’re on the threshold of a much brighter future.” 

For more information, visit www.paqtnkek.ca