Melanie Patten - They know what the lagoon looks like after decades as a dumping site for pulp mill effluent -- brown and frothy, an unpalatable root beer float in Nova Scotia's Pictou County.

They know what Boat Harbour smells like, too: cabbage at best, sulphur at worst.

But what residents of the Pictou Landing First Nation don't know is whether waste water near their community has been harming them. Now they're hoping a unique research project will provide them with the long-awaited answers.

"We want to know if Boat Harbour is making us sick," says Sheila Francis, a married mother of five and lifelong resident of the First Nation about a two-hour drive northeast of Halifax.

"We can say, 'Yeah, it is making us sick.' But we don't really know."

Answering that question has become a personal project for the Pictou Landing Women's Association. Francis serves as president of the small group.

About a year ago, the women met with Heather Castleden, a professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax with a keen interest in environmental management and aboriginal issues.

Castleden was recently awarded a $445,000 grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research to probe the situation at Pictou Landing. The three-year study will explore the environmental, physical, emotional and spiritual toll the effluent has had on the reserve.

"When you think about environmental justice issues in Canada, often times we think about First Nations and some of the injustices that have taken place in their territories," says Castleden, who will work closely with the women's association on the project.

"It resonated for me ... that (Boat Harbour) is meant to be researched for positive environmental, social and health justice."

The First Nation launched a lawsuit in 2010 demanding the province clean up the harbour and build a new treatment plant for effluent from the mill, which is owned by Northern Pulp Nova Scotia Corp.

While waste water from the plant meets federal standards for pulp and paper mills, effluent has been pumped into the harbour since the 1960s when standards were lower.

Claims of higher asthma rates and other diseases have been well documented. Francis says some elders in the community are afraid to use plants for traditional medicinal purposes for fear of contamination.

Don Breen, vice-president of business development with Northern Pulp, says the treatment facility has been extensively monitored since the 1990s to ensure it meets Canadian regulations.

"The system has been well studied, however, we welcome further analysis on the subject," he says.

He says the company, which took over operations at the mill in the mid-'90s, takes daily water samples and would be pleased to provide Castleden with those results.

Castleden says the research will be conducted using a Mi'kmaq approach that combines mainstream science with traditional aboriginal methods. The so-called 'Two-Eyed Seeing' approach will involve air quality testing and water sampling, but also sharing circles and Mi'kmaq ceremonies.

"A western approach tends to focus more on a narrow slice of what's going on, but indigenous research, I find, is much more comprehensive and holistic," says Castleden.

"I think that when we think about pathways to health for indigenous people and communities, we need to consider all of that."

Castleden says she hopes to begin work in May. One of the first steps will be collecting stories from community members, with scientific research following in the summer or fall. Samples from the lagoon will be collected seasonally. A documentary is also in the works, she says.

Francis says the women's association is hopeful the project, regardless of its findings, will inspire action among future generations.

"As mothers, we're life-givers and we're caretakers," she says. "For this research grant to happen because of the work that we want, it's very empowering. We're just so excited."