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Gene Kersey, left, and Tim Menk walk along the damaged seawall in Gabarus, NS, on April 2, 2013. The deteriorated wall is currently involved in a debate over which level of government is responsible for repairing it. (PAUL DARROW FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Gene Kersey, left, and Tim Menk walk along the damaged seawall in Gabarus, NS, on April 2, 2013. The deteriorated wall is currently involved in a debate over which level of government is responsible for repairing it. (PAUL DARROW FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Environment

For a Nova Scotia fishing village, there’s danger of falling into the ocean Add to ...

The 300-year-old fishing village of Gabarus, on the southeast coast of Cape Breton, is in danger of falling into the ocean.

For nearly 70 years, a seawall made of timber and rock has stood as the only guard between the scenic town and the surge of the ocean. But the decades have been hard on the wall: The wood is breaking and the stone is falling away at an alarming pace. The village’s 78 residents – Gabaroosters, they call themselves – are now wondering with trepidation what the next storm will bring. Their calls for help, so far, have gone unheeded: No government will claim ownership of the seawall.

Although Gabarus is a postcard-perfect slice of seaside Canadiana, it is also one of postrecession austerity. The fate of the village is being thrown into doubt as both the provincial and federal governments grapple with tight budgets and more pressing priorities than fixing a seawall that could cost as much as $5.3-million.

But for Gabaroosters, the battle to save the seawall is about much more than money. It’s a fight about fairness, preserving rural coastal communities and a way of life. It’s about recognizing they count as much as any citizen of Halifax, Toronto or Vancouver.

“[The government] may not care,” says 92-year-old Mildred Gray, who has lived most of her life on Memory Lane in the village. “But you know, they depend on all communities to put them in power. If they neglect these little places, maybe it will affect their jobs.”

Founded by Basque sea captain Barthélemy de Cabarrus, this tranquil community sustains itself still, ironically, from the bounty of the North Atlantic which it now fears. There is a modest crab and lobster fishery – residents estimate about $5-million a year.

Most Gabarus dwellings are along each side of Route 327, which ends at the ocean. In the early 1900s, the village boasted 1,000 people – but then the ferry to the larger community of Louisbourg stopped running, the young people left for the cities, and the town atrophied. There are no stores, coffee shops or schools. In fact, there are no kids. In the summer, however, the population triples and children do appear. Sydney, the biggest nearby city, is 40 minutes away on a pothole-filled road.

There is a post office on the main drag. Not far from it is the new fire hall – the former one was destroyed by a storm in 1983. Across the street is the former Temperance Hall, now a community centre, which is used by the “hookers” – women who get together to hook rugs.

This is the village that Tim Menk and Gene Kersey fell in love with seven years ago when they first visited from the United States – and where the couple was married last year by retired Mountie John Danch, the village’s justice of the peace.

Almost as quickly as they fell in love with the town, they realized their community was under threat. They are now leading the Friends of Gabarus, or FOG – a tiny group of activists involved in a David-vs.-Goliath struggle with the Canadian government.

“At the governmental level, nobody wants to spend the money – and the federal government least of all with regard to spending money, it appears, in the Maritimes,” Mr. Menk says.

The federal government, which built the wall in 1946 and has maintained it sporadically over the years, argues the seawall is Nova Scotia’s responsibility because it sits mostly on provincial land.

“The Government of Canada cannot assume a general responsibility for shoreline protection throughout the country regardless of the owner of the land or adjacent property,” then acting fisheries minister Gail Shea wrote last November to the local MP, Liberal Rodger Cuzner.

Mr. Cuzner has raised the issue in the House of Commons, only to receive evasive answers. Pushing hard, too, is local MLA Alfie MacLeod, a Progressive Conservative opposition member.

The Dexter NDP government, however, refuses to accept the view that it is responsible. “They built the seawall in 1946. They have maintained it in years since. It’s very much their responsibility,” Natural Resources Minister Charlie Parker says. “I think it’s a pattern we’ve been seeing with the federal government. I suppose they are not wanting to set a precedent.”

Mr. Parker says he will continue to press the federal government to “step up to the plate here.”

But no one is swinging harder than Mr. Menk and Mr. Kersey. Working from their house on the outskirts of the village – they call it Greater Gabarus – the interracial couple might know more about Treasury Board policy than some bureaucrats.

“It was God’s gift that Gene and Tim came here,” says Gloria Wilson, who grew up in Gabarus.

Heather Hayes, a FOG member who, with her husband, moved permanently to the community three years ago, doesn’t have kind words for government. “It’s almost like you’re treated like the great unwashed here,” she says. “Our tax dollars are worth as much as anybody’s tax dollars.”

A May, 2012, report from the Nova Scotia Department of Natural Resources describes the seawall as “in fair to poor condition” and “approaching the end of its service life.” The 1983 storm breached the wall; another in 2010 further damaged it, as did one last March.

So far there is no viable emergency preparedness plan from any government as to what measures would be used and how Gabaroosters would be evacuated if the seawall fails.

Cape Breton Regional Municipality Mayor Cecil Clarke is trying to broker a deal among the three levels of government for $1.2-million for immediate repairs – $700,000 from the federal government, $400,000 from the province and $100,000 from the municipality.

“The problem we have is people are more caught up right now in jurisdictional process and ownership issues rather than getting to the core of coastal communities, coastal economies and rural sustainability,” Mr. Clarke says.

But Mr. Parker is adamant the province won’t put in any money until the federal government does. Federal Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield is looking for some money, possibly from Enterprise Cape Breton Corporation, the island’s federal economic development agency.

“As I have indicated to Mayor Clarke, repair of the seawall does not fall under the mandate of Fisheries and Oceans Canada,” Mr. Ashfield wrote in an e-mail. “There may, however, be other sources of funding available, and I encourage him to explore those possibilities.”

Mr. Menk says a temporary fix is equal to surrender, as it will be “done one time and one time only and they will be, I guarantee it, insufficient to protect the village even in the next 10 years let alone the next 25 or 50.”

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