Society trying to get Seawall Trail project over finish line

October 26, 2022

The Seawall Trail will be a five-day, 48-kilometer wilderness hike. The main coastal route will travel from south to north and will expand upon existing, historical trails (with plenty of new trail added). An east-west inland spur trail will begin near Cape North. Trailheads on the main and spur routes will connect the trail to communities in both Victoria and Inverness counties.

The future Seawall Trail is largely bound by the Polletts Cove Aspy-Fault Wilderness Area. Development in a protected area requires a special process.

“Good things come to those who wait.”

The phrase has been used to sell Guinness stout and Heinz ketchup, and proponents of the Seawall Trail can only hope it bodes well for a project that’s been almost a decade in the works.

Ray Fraser chairs the Seawall Trail Society, a registered non-profit group formed in 2014. In 2019, it presented a plan to the province for approval to develop a multi-day, hut-to-hut coastal hiking experience in the Polletts Cove-Aspy Fault Wilderness Area of northern Cape Breton. He’s encouraging supporters of the project to write the provincial Minister of the Environment and Climate Change (ECC) urging support for the project.

A lone hiker is shown from the top of the Seawall Ascent. Photo: Live Life In Tents

Fraser says since 2017 there have been multiple independent studies done that have endorsed the plan. He says a study commissioned by Tourism Nova Scotia said, “the trail plan is good, as is, and can stand to make $2-3 million a year,” noting that the study outlined ways it could actually increase that yearly revenue to $5 million.

He says the same conclusion was reached by a study of adventure tourism in northern Cape Breton, which was completed for Destination Cape Breton, and a third that was conducted for Develop Nova Scotia.

“Both those studies indicated that the trail plan, as is, is fabulous and would generate millions of dollars, and you don’t have to change a thing,” he recalls. “And here are some suggestions, in case you wanted to put guiding into effect, and bring it up to a $5 million-a-year industry.”

Robert Bernard (top photo), a member of the Seawall Trail Society, has spearheaded Mi’kmaw involvement in the Seawall Trail project.

“So that’s several independent firms that have looked at this trail and said it’s fabulous, but the Department of the Environment has not yet approved it.”

He says then-Environment Minister Margaret Miller told the group in 2014 she endorsed the plan. In 2020, Gordon Wilson, the environment minister with the MacNeil Liberal government, sent a letter to the society indicating his personal support for the project, while indicating the need for more studies and the involvement of the Mi’kmaw community.

Clare Waque, trail development lead with the society, and its only paid staff member, says that letter in 2020 led to the establishment of a working group with representation from the society, ECC and the Mi’kmaw community, and that it’s met regularly since that time.

Some of the studies requested by the minister have also been undertaken, Waque adds. “There have been several studies done of alternate alignments, as well as a botanical study, as well as an archaeological study which is about one third complete,” she explains.

“There’s been an ongoing conversation about how to address waterways, how to address potential impact on Mi’kmaw artifacts, how to address minimizing the impact on the environment, essentially,” Waque adds.

“All of those studies are very expensive, and the department (ECC) has covered the cost of all the botanical studies, and they’ve contributed towards some of the archaeological (study).

Waque says it’s difficult for a group of volunteers to fundraise for these expensive studies, noting that the archaeological study is a great idea – and indeed an opportunity – if only the province’s request for the study came with funding.

“We’re really interested in the archaeological work from an interpretive standpoint, really interested in it from the standpoint of working with Mi’kmaw already and having the opportunity to explore history,” she explains, noting that whatever may be found in terms of archaeological findings could eventually become part of the trail experience.”

“Our relationship with the Mi’kmaw is really one of the wonderful things that has come out of all this.”

Robert Bernard, executive director of Nova Scotia Indigenous Tourism Enterprise Network, has coordinated the involvement of the Mi’kmaw community in the Seawall Trail project, and has actually become a member of the society himself. He agrees the Seawall Trail project presents a great opportunity for education.

“We could actually really incorporate a lot of Mi’kmaw cultural education and cultural tourism into this project,” explains Bernard, who still lives in his native community of We’kopma’q. “Thousands of tourists come through the Cabot Trail every year that don’t get this education.” “The trail itself is an incredible opportunity,” he adds. “It’s an international opportunity for visitation from tourists and hikers…from around the world. But it also has to be done right.”

“Our relationship with the Mi’kmaw is really one of the wonderful things that has come out of all this.”

Most of the proposed 48-kilometre trail hugs the rugged coastline along the Polletts Cove-Aspy Fault Wilderness Area. Photo: Live Life In Tents

“We’re kind of in the middle of continuing to also educate the (Seawall Trail Society) board members, the staff,” Bernard says. “Clare (Waque) has been amazing. Dave (former society vice-chair David Williams) and Ray (Fraser) have been very open and willing. The challenge has always been they (the society) don’t have a lot of funding, and the funding that government has issued to the project has been very specific on certain infrastructure development.”

“There’s so much more needed for research.”

According to documents prepared by the society earlier this year, the project, with a $5.6 million price tag, anticipates a return on that investment in less than 10 years from opening. In addition, the society says it will generate $6 million in new tourism dollars for every 10,000 visitors due to an increase in global visibility and Nova Scotia brand awareness.

Along with significant tax revenues accrued by the province, it maintains the project will generate at least $10-12 million annually in indirect economic benefit.

Thirty full-season jobs would be created during the three-year construction period, and another 10 to 17 employees would be required to operate the trail once it’s open.

The Seawall Trail Society is responsible for the development of the Seawall Trail. The Society – a registered non profit – was formed in 2014 with the goal to develop Northern Cape Breton’s natural walking assets and to create a product that would support both locals and visitors from around the world. In addition to attracting hikers, the Society believes that the trail has great potential as a sustainable economic engine in rural Nova Scotia.

The Society is comprised of a diverse group of members who are passionate about nature, exploring, hiking and grassroots community development. Board members include teachers, engineers, professors, fishermen, writers,contractors, chefs, outfitters, and guides. The Society is also guided by an excited and committed Advisory Group comprised of outdoor enthusiasts who understand the value and importance of the Seawall Trail.