Only 78

The News (New Glasgow) - - FRONT PAGE -

Film doc­u­ments tiny Cape Bre­ton vil­lage’s bat­tle with fed­eral gov­ern­ment.

They feared be­ing swal­lowed by ocean, but the 78 res­i­dents of Gabarus, never waved a white flag be­fore the fed­eral gov­ern­ment.

For decades, a sea­wall made of tim­ber and rock pro­tected the tiny 300-year-old fish­ing vil­lage in Cape Bre­ton from the pun­ish­ing waves of the At­lantic.

But as the 70-year-old struc­ture started to crum­ble, the very ex­is­tence of Gabarus was un­der threat — and gov­ern­ments were not help­ing, each level claim­ing the wall was not its prob­lem.

The plight of Gabarus sparked a years-long bat­tle with Ot­tawa and kin­dled a com­mu­nity spirit that has banded to­gether life-long res­i­dents with new­com­ers who set­tled in the scenic town for its beauty and sim­plis­tic way of life.

Their story is chron­i­cled in a new doc­u­men­tary ti­tled “Only 78,” set to screen at the At­lantic In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val on Sun­day in Hal­i­fax.

“The peo­ple of Gabarus are re­mark­ably re­silient and in­spir­ing,” said Toronto film­maker Jawad Mir, the film’s cre­ator. “They’ve shown that it doesn’t mat­ter how small you are, you can fight. You just have to go for it.”

Res­i­dents of Gabarus have long ar­gued that Ot­tawa, which built the sea­wall in the 1940s, owns the struc­ture and is re­spon­si­ble for main­tain­ing it. But the Fish­eries De­part­ment has re­peat­edly said the wall sits al­most en­tirely on Nova Sco­tia-owned land and is there­fore a pro­vin­cial and mu­nic­i­pal re­spon­si­bil­ity.

“Who cares who owns it? We need to have re­spon­si­ble peo­ple step for­ward and say that this isn’t right. We need to have it fixed ... The At­lantic Ocean doesn’t give two hoots about us, but our elected rep­re­sen­ta­tive re­ally should care,” Gabarus res­i­dent Heather Hayes said dur­ing a pub­lic meet­ing in Syd­ney, that is shown in “Only 78.”

If the wall was breached, it would put at risk the lo­cal fish­ing in­dus­try — its only econ­omy — as well as road ac­cess to the vil­lage, and many homes. It failed be­fore in the 1980s and was fixed by the fed­eral gov­ern­ment, ac­cord­ing to re­search com­piled by Gabarus res­i­dents.

A pow­er­ful storm in 2010 that bat­tered the sea­wall made mat­ters worse, adding to the ur­gency.

Tim Menk, 64, and his part­ner Gene Kersey, 71, moved to Gabarus from the United States in 2008 and re­al­ized the com­mu­nity was “un­der ex­is­ten­tial threat.”

Armed with hun­dreds of doc­u­ments and the bless­ing of the vil­lage’s el­ders, Menk and a small group of res­i­dents set out to fight for fund­ing to re­pair the sea­wall.

The Friends of Gabarus So­ci­ety was born and claimed to have ev­i­dence that the sea­wall was the fed­eral gov­ern­ment’s re­spon­si­bil­ity — a no­tion out­right re­jected by Ot­tawa on many oc­ca­sions.

“Those of us who ar­rived found our­selves en­chanted by this place and by its lovely peo­ple who were so wel­com­ing ... It didn’t mat­ter that we were bira­cial gay cou­ple from the States. And we felt we owed some­thing to the com­mu­nity be­cause they have given so much to us,” said Menk.

“But the at­ti­tude was that the gov­ern­ment is go­ing to do what the gov­ern­ment’s go­ing to do. So we were driven by a sense of moral out­rage that the gov­ern­ment wasn’t do­ing the right thing here.”

Mir said he was drawn to the story of Gabarus af­ter read­ing a news­pa­per ar­ti­cle in April 2013. He self-funded the film, trav­el­ling to Cape Bre­ton sev­eral times over four years on his own dime, in­spired by the re­lent­less ad­vo­cacy in Gabarus and aim­ing to help their cause.

“There are many com­mu­ni­ties across Canada un­der sim­i­lar threat, so I thought it was im­por­tant to tell their story,” said Mir. “I’m al­ways about the un­der­dog.”

Af­ter eight years of meet­ings, me­dia in­ter­views and even a com­plaint filed with the Pub­lic Sec­tor In­tegrity Com­mis­sioner’s of­fice, Gabarus even­tu­ally won re­pairs for its sea­wall in early 2014 through a $700,000 shared-fund­ing agree­ment with three lev­els of gov­ern­ment.

It served as a cat­a­lyst for con­tin­ued com­mu­nity ac­tivism in the his­toric fish­ing vil­lage. Gabarus also won fund­ing to move its 125-year-old light­house away from a cliff’s edge to es­cape coastal ero­sion, and its res­i­dents raised money to ex­pand the lo­cal fire­hall - all of which gained tiny Gabarus a com­mu­nity spirit award from the lieu­tenant-gov­er­nor.

Menk said he hopes the story of Gabarus in­spires other small com­mu­ni­ties to take on gov­ern­ments, not­ing that “Only 78” also touches on the ex­pe­ri­ence of Lit­tle Anse, which has lob­bied Ot­tawa — so far, un­suc­cess­fully — to fix its break­wa­ter.

“We’re in the same leaky boat to­gether in th­ese coastal com­mu­ni­ties,” said Menk. “Row in the same di­rec­tion. Un­less we do that, we have lit­tle chance of sur­vival in the long term.”


A sea­wall in Gabarus is shown in this hand­out im­age. For decades, a sea­wall made of tim­ber and rock pro­tected the tiny 300-year-old fish­ing vil­lage in Cape Bre­ton from the pun­ish­ing waves of the At­lantic.

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