Stay on the sidewalk. Hollis Street is a busy, one-way (north to south) commuter street with office buildings, cafes, restaurants and bars.
In the Cape Breton Highlands, the forestry industry has long been an important piece of Nova Scotia’s cultural, financial and political well-being. But during an irruption of spruce budworms in the 1970s, the Highlands’ forests were threatened, and the proposed solution was insecticide sprays.
In Spray Days, artist Kate Phillips teams up with her mother, Connie Phillips, to create a comic-style narrative that discusses the successful protest against anti-budworm pesticide sprays in Nova Scotia, as well as factors leading up to the budworm threat itself. But while the budworm spray protests were successful, they didn’t necessarily lead to the sweeping changes for which many environmentalists had hoped. Spray Days reminds us why we should care about forestry policy, and why ecological activists should keep their attention on politics as well as protests.
The transcript or descriptive text for this piece can be found by touching the "Text" button in the bottom right hand corner of your screen in the "View the Art" section.
Kate Philips is a comic artist and illustrator born and raised in Cape Breton, and currently residing in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. Owner of a large collection of antique meat-grinders and a never-ending pile of laundry, Kate draws artwork that is often playfully searching for strangeness (and queerness) in the mundane world.
Connie Philips, Kate’s mother, also grew up in Cape Breton. She has a passion for history and love for nature, as demonstrated by her well-nurtured vegetable garden. Connie’s experiences growing up in a large family, interrupted by the unusually high cancer rates of the area, inspired her to investigate environmental (and political) factors surrounding the issue, and she found a voice in ecological activism during her younger years.
In 1922, 1952, and again in 1977, the Spruce Budworm epidemic raged in Nova Scotia’s forests, most notably in Cape Breton. In 1977 the forestry leaders were a total buzz-kill, pushing a pro-pesticide agenda based on incomplete research. In fact, after they sprayed pesticides in New Brunswick, the budworm population grew, while costs accumulated. The EAC supported community organizations in Cape Breton which pushed back against the spray and encouraged ecological forestry management practices and silviculture. In 1976, 77 and 78, Nova Scotia chose not to spray, citing health and environmental concerns. Instead, energies were directed towards intensive management and salvage operations, which provided approximately 500 jobs and, over time, took care of the infestation of the budworm.
Panel 1: An eager-looking kid with long hair under a baseball cap stands next to an adult woman with shorter hair. Both are dressed casually and are facing away, out into a forest of rolling hills, with different kinds of trees and plants. The caption says, “I’ve learned a lot from my mother growing up in rural Cape Breton. The value of our natural resources.”
Panel 2: A chickadee with wings spread, snatches a pale caterpillar off an evergreen branch. The caption reads, “The importance of biodiversity.”
Panel 3 is blank except for the caption, “The love for our large extended family. And how all of those things started my mother’s journey in ecological activism. For her family, it began with the spruce budworm.”
Panel 4: A few more pale worms crawl over needles of trees. The background is a graph showing a jagged line clearly rising up and then down in a repetitive pattern. The captions read,
“The worms’ population explodes as they destroy mature spruce and fir, and then declines for decades as new growth matures enough to support them again. They’re a serious threat to Nova Scotia’s forestry industry.”
Panel 5: The woman with short hair, my mother, holds a coffee mug as she speaks. Her expression feels wry and disappointed. She is saying “But forestry companies weren’t managing the forests well, so it’s no surprise the budworms were going to hit hard.” The caption underneath reads, “Against advice to use older stands first, the large forestry companies had been chopping whatever was easiest. Mature stock was left sitting as an asset. When the budworms struck the highlands in the 1970s, the forest was very vulnerable.” My mother adds, “And of course they wanted to spray toxic chemicals to stop the budworms.
Panel 6: An undiverse forest of only one kind of spruce tree, with the caption, “My mom, like her mother, holds a great contempt for these sprays.”
Panel 7: A small propellor plane sits on the ground. Caption, “It’s understandable that the people of Cape Breton would be wary of the idea of chemical sprays. The area has an unusually high cancer rate, and the Sydney tar ponds are a poignant example of industrial ecological failure. So, one can certainly empathize with residents feeling distrustful of these plans.” A second caption below reads, “New Brunswick had already been spraying anti-budworm pesticides since the 1950s by the time Nova Scotia had considered it in 1976.
“But there were several good reasons not to spray here.”
Panel 8: A series of illustrations show a montage of a variety of people in different settings.
An older man with glasses and a concerned expression says, “Most people will tell you casually that the squirrels have disappeared, they don’t see bees anymore. We don’t know the consequences.”
A man with dark curly hair and a durable-looking jacket leans to the side while looking away. He says, “I’m a woodlot owner, but I’m against the spray. From all past evidence, the spraying only perpetuates the epidemic. It never collapses naturally.”
The next two people, a bearded man in a cap, and a long-haired woman in a bandana, are also dressed in working clothes.The woman has an angry expression as she watches the man speak. He looks away into the distance as he says, “Last year, when the elementary school was sprayed…” Behind them, there is a close-up of a newspaper. It is the Cape Breton Post from Wednesday, March 31st, 1976, and the bold front-page headline reads, “Fatal to Children: Disease May Be Linked To Budworm Spray”.
In the next section of the illustration, a woman sits facing the reader. Her hair is pulled back but some of it is still loose, and her lined face has a serious expression. She is saying, “It didn’t seem like the doctors in this area knew exactly what was wrong, until he was sent to Halifax and we were told it was Reye’s Syndrome.
Finally, an angry looking man with a tie and a white coat says, “When one pediatrician gets four cases of a rare entity in a row, you begin to wonder what is going on.”
Panel 9: A propellor plane is flying low over trees. Misty clouds are pouring from under its’wings as it sprays the forest. The caption reads, “Findings were suggesting ingredients in the insecticides were dangerous, and New Brunswick’s spray program simply wasn’t working. New Brunswick was stuck sinking funds into an expensive, endless spray campaign. The budworm population only grew, never busting like their natural cycle.”
Panel 10: A crowd of people are holding picket signs and banners. The caption reads, “In Nova Scotia, the spray debate was fierce. Pro-spray companies published frightening reports and threatened the loss of local jobs. Anti-spray groups raised a multifaceted resistance, arguing from perspectives of health and safety, politics, science, and necessity.
Panel 11: A young woman with a soft expression looks off-panel as she speaks. Her hair is in a bun, and she is wearing a plaid shirt. Behind her, a presentation flip chart reads, “Aerial Spraying Hazards” with a list, “Wind Currents, Pilot Errors, Mechanical Failure”. She points to it with a pointer. The caption reads, “A young newcomer, Elizabeth May, became the face of the anti-spray protests. Her persistent and factual approach was compelling. She was effective at communicating the science and data beyond the health fears.”
Panel 12: A folder with papers sliding out. The papers are stamped “Cancelled”. The caption says, “Budworm spray permits were refused by the Nova Scotia cabinet three times. Until the budworm population began to wane naturally in 1978, activists kept up the pressure to prevent aerial spraying of anti-budworm pesticides. The protests were a success.”
Panel 13: Trees stretch on to the distance, but it doesn’t look like a natural forest. Each tree is identical, and they are perfectly spaced in neat rows. The caption, “The budworm spray was cancelled. But, the Nova Scotia Government’s new policy encouraged replanting stands with single-species, single aged trees for harvest.”
Panel 14: My mother sits at the kitchen table with her coffee beside her again. She is playing cribbage and has a sour grimace on her face as she snaps cards down on the table. She is angrily saying, “And these companies were allowed to spray herbicides to kill off other kinds of trees. It just makes them vulnerable. No biodiversity!” The caption below reads, “My mother is still angry, and I try to empathize. Her immediate family all had cancer. They’re gone now, and I imagine it’s hard not to be consumed by health fears for her kids and the rest of her family.”
“When I get her started on the topic, mom pulls out vocabulary and chemical names, even after all these years.”
Panel 15: My mother is sitting with her legs crossed, a cross expression on her face. Her hand is waving in front of her and a flurry of speech bubbles are rapidly coming out of her. The fragments of what she’s saying are snippets:
“Did you watch the Herbicide Trials yet? That will tell you everything you need to know.”
“That was fenitrothion, I’m talking about 2,4-D”
“It’s Agent Orange!”
“And then they went to Sweden to meet with the CEO, but the meeting was only 5 minutes.”
“Owned by Monsanto”
“But the Emulsifiers”
“All they’d say is “inert ingredients”
Panel 16: A tablet is sitting upright on a table, with audio coming out of it. The caption reads, “She points out familiar faces in the news videos and documentaries”. The tablet audio is saying, “proposed spray site, Sky Mountain, has already been clear cut and re-forested. It’s the source of drinking water for the Mi'kmaw community below.”
Panel 17: Caption, “And she tells me about the time she was leaving for work early one morning with her mother”. The illustration shows two women standing by a running car, doors open. They are staring up at the rolling hills beyond the forests near them. A plane is flying low over the hills dumping clouds of herbicide spray. My mother is saying “We weren’t part of their spray block, but it dumped it’s load over our water supply. Pilot errors were just so common.”
Panel 18: A Mi'kmaq man with short hair and a casual jacket holds a seedling spruce tree that was pulled from the ground. He looks at it with a neutral expression. To the side, there’s a close-up of a newspaper. The caption reads, “There were protests to the herbicide sprays, as well. Some were more successful than others.” The newspaper headline says, “Incident on Skye Mountain: 150 Mi’kmaw residents from We’koqma’q [Whycocomagh] area rip up spruce seedlings to protest herbicides”.
Panel 19: The man is now sitting with his hands crossed. He’s wearing a button-up shirt, and sitting beside a short-haired woman in a turtleneck. The caption: “Travelling to meet with the owners of the forestry companies was fruitless”. He is angrily saying, “He’s the coldest human I’ve ever met. I’ve never seen such a man like him.” The woman beside him has an expression of awkward surprise.
Panel 20: A judge’s gavel is being slammed down by an arm in a dark robe. The caption says, “The last resort was a court battle between landowners and Stora Kopparberg. The suit was completely unsuccessful. The judge passed an unusually harsh ruling, awarding all costs to the company, even though the landowners were standing for public interest.”
“The locals were left on the hook for everything. It was to prevent anyone else from trying to fight big corporations. It was anti-environmentalist. Eventually they settled, on the terms that they could not appeal again.”
Panel 21: A series of 3 scenes. In the first, a sharply dressed man with glasses and a complacent expression is saying into an interview microphone, “If you don’t want to take in herbicides, don’t drink them!”
The next scene looks like it’s starting to fade away. A white-haired man in a suit is arguing with a curly-haired woman with a scarf. He is saying, “Oh don’t worry about the numbers!” as she pleads, “But you should! You really should!”
The final scene is almost entirely faded away. It’s a woman with a short puffy hairstyle and fancy attire, and she’s saying “A pregnant woman could drink two litres of the mixture every day…”
Panel 22: My mother looks tired. She is sitting with her eyes closed. Caption: “Win or lose, it seems there’s always more work to do. Mom talks about her families’ activism in the past tense.
Mom is saying, “The last protests I had involvement in were against sprays for the Hemlock Looper caterpillar. But I’m too exhausted to do that stuff anymore!” The caption continues: “But I continue to learn from her. She’s engaged in these topics, even if she’s not protesting anymore.”
A pop-up notification shows a message from my mom in an electronic speech bubble that says, “Here’s the link to the forestry report we were talking about earlier…”
Panel 23: The final panel is a close-up of a shiny Canadian one-dollar coin, a loonie. It’s flipped loon side up, showing the bird and the trees behind it. The caption reads, “And mom is certainly clear on her feelings about capitalism.” Her dialogue says, “It is never about the wellbeing of Earth or forests or people. It is about politics and money. It always comes down to the almighty dollar.”
References for this project:
Smith, G. (1956). DDT spraying wipes out fish hatchery [Recorded by Canadian Sports Roundup Radio]. Canada.
Cape Breton Report. (1989, September 13). Cape Breton recovers from the spruce budworm. Canada: CBC.
Folster, D. (1978, June 12). That old devil spray. Maclean's. Canada: Maclean's.
Kimber, S. (1982, July 19). Incident on Sky Mountain. Maclean's. Canada: Maclean's.
Leeming, M. (2016). In tune with the Earth: Musical protest and Nova Scotian environmentalism. Acadiensis, 126-142.
Leeming, M. R. (2013). In defence of home places: Environmental activism in Nova Scotia, 1970-1985. Nova Scotia, Canada.