Fire destroys lobster facility in southwest Nova Scotia amid escalating fishery tensions
A fire that police are calling suspicious destroyed a lobster pound in Middle West Pubnico, N.S., early Saturday.
The blaze broke out at one of two facilities raided and vandalized by commercial fishermen in southwest Nova Scotia earlier this week protesting the “moderate livelihood” fishery launched by Sipekne’katik First Nation last month. Mi’kmaw fishers were storing their catches at the facilities.
In a news release Saturday morning, the RCMP said they responded to the blaze at about midnight Saturday. Police say the fire is suspicious, and a man is in hospital with life-threatening injuries believed to be related to the fire. The release said police are investigating.
Nova Scotia RCMP spokesperson Sgt. Andrew Joyce later told CBC News that the injured person is an “adult male who is considered a person of interest.”
Eel Brook Fire Chief Jonathan LeBlanc told CBC News that fire crews responded to a fire at a “large commercial structure” at 1065 Highway 335 at about midnight.
WATCH | Fire engulfs lobster pound:
“When we arrived, the building was fully involved and was beyond saving at that point,” he said. “So we immediately went to trying to protect the exposures in the other buildings nearby. Eventually we did get things under control and contained, but the building was levelled.”
LeBlanc said eight fire departments and between 80 and 100 firefighters were on scene. The West Pubnico fire department stayed behind to monitor the situation and ensure the fire doesn’t pick back up again, he said.
According to the province’s Property Online database, the facility is owned by East Coast Atlantic Fisheries Ltd., which is tied to the Chinese company Juehui International. A 2016 deed says ECAF purchased the plant from Juehui for $1. Both companies share the same New Brunswick address in Saint John.
Sipekne’katik Chief Mike Sack confirmed to CBC that the fire happened at one of the two pounds raided earlier in the week in Middle West Pubnico. The other pound was in New Edinburgh, N.S. A vehicle was torched and crates of lobster were dumped on the ground as fishermen barricaded themselves during the attacks.
‘Very bad news’
Sack said on Saturday morning that the fire was “very bad news to wake up to.” He reiterated his call to the federal government “to step in and make sure safety is ensured.”
Tensions have been simmering for weeks in the province’s southwest, sparked by the launch of a moderate livelihood lobster fishery by the Sipekne’katik band outside the federally mandated commercial season on Sept. 17 — 21 years after the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in the case of Donald Marshall Jr.
The landmark decision affirmed the Mi’kmaw right to earn a “moderate livelihood” from fishing. The court later said the federal government could regulate the Mi’kmaw fishery but must justify any restrictions it placed on it.
WATCH | Chief Mike Sack ‘at a loss’ after fire destroys N.S. lobster facility:
Many commercial lobster fishermen say they consider the new Sipekne’katik fishery in St. Marys Bay illegal and worry that catching lobster outside the mandated season, particularly during the summer spawning period, will negatively impact stocks.
Sipekne’katik officials have said the amount of lobster that will be harvested and sold is tiny compared with what’s caught during the commercial season, which begins in late November and runs until the end of May.
They say the fishery was launched after the band was unable to find common ground with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans on the definition of moderate livelihood.
Early Saturday, Sack said he was “blown away by the way things are evolving here.” He said Mi’kmaw fishermen are being refused service for fuel, traps, gear and bait.
“I think it’s horrible all the way around,” he said. “Everyone that we worked with are all turning their backs on us just because of fear for their life and their business. It’s 2020, we all bleed red, so I think we all need love, not hate.”
LISTEN | Mi’kmaw fisherman Jason Marr talks about having his vehicle torched in Middle West Pubnico earlier in the week:
Information Morning – NS8:11Mi’kmaw fisherman describes barricading himself inside lobster pound as mob vandalized vehicles outside
At a news conference Saturday afternoon, Sack told reporters he wasn’t sure if there was lobster being stored at the facility at the time of the fire.
He also said he is continuing talks with the federal government about implementing the First Nation’s fishery management plan. Sack said he believes that once a plan is approved, it will bring an end to the dispute.
“Once that’s resolved with our issue, the commercial fishermen can fully understand where we’re coming from and understand what we’re doing, and that should dissolve any problems they might have with us,” he said.
“As far as what [problems] they have with the government, I can’t speak for either of those sides.”
Sack said that “there’s a lot of remorse in the community” over the person who was injured in the fire.
“Nobody wants anybody hurt. We’re not here to fight,” he said. “I’m sure the level of fear has risen within our people [and] everyone involved…. We’re just hoping that there’s better days to come and the violence is done with for everyone.”
Sack said he has been told the person injured in the fire was a “non-Indigenous person.”
In a tweet, Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde said his office has reached out to the RCMP and the federal government to “express First Nations’ deep concern.”
“I demand a full and thorough investigation by the proper authorities,” he said.
The Nova Scotia RCMP announced in a release on Saturday afternoon that they have laid an assault charge against a 46-year-old man after a video of a man grabbing and shoving Chief Sack outside a lobster pound in New Edinburgh circulated online.
‘It shouldn’t have happened’
Pierrette d’Entremont, who lives in the area, said she was lying in bed that night when she began hearing crackling noises “like Rice Krispies.”
“When I sat up in bed, I could see a glow already and I looked outside and I knew right away what it was,” she said.
She and her husband walked down the road, where they could see fire crews on scene and the building “fully engulfed in flames.” She said she “wasn’t surprised at all” by the fire.
“It shouldn’t have happened,” d’Entremont said. “It was so obvious that there was so much tension that something could happen. How could there have not been a million cameras pointing at it all week? An RCMP vehicle, someone — I don’t know.”
D’Entremont, who is Acadian, is concerned about the escalating violence in the area. She described the recent actions of the commercial fishermen involved as “very far over the line.”
“I believe that the treaty rights have to be upheld. I believe that there has to be a solution,” she said. “I just don’t understand the violence at all. It’s just too far.”
Senators, politicians denounce violence
When it comes to laying blame for the escalating conflict, many — including the Sipekne’katik First Nation, commercial fishers, Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil and opposition parties — have pointed fingers at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans for failing to properly define a “moderate livelihood.”
The premier tweeted Saturday afternoon that he is “deeply concerned about the acts of intimidation & violence” in southwestern Nova Scotia.
McNeil also said the province is working with the federal government to identify a facilitator to resolve the issue.
I‘m deeply concerned about the acts of intimidation & violence that have taken place in southwest NS. We will ensure law enforcement has the necessary resources to keep people safe, but we need calmer heads & respect for the law & each other to prevail at this difficult time. 1/4
N.S. Opposition leader Tim Houston pointed to Ottawa in a statement issued Saturday.
“[Fisheries] Minister [Bernadette] Jordan has a job to do: work with all parties toward resolution and clearly define ‘moderate livelihood,'” the Progressive Conservative leader said. “The minister must provide regular communications with Nova Scotians to provide some assurance that her government understands the urgency and magnitude of the crisis.”
Federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh tweeted on Saturday: “This is terrorism. The Mi’kmaq people desperately need help now. No more empty words, [Justin Trudeau.] This must be stopped.”
Jordan said Thursday she is in negotiations with the Sipekne’katik First Nation and is talking to commercial fishermen.
WATCH | Federal fisheries minister responds to raids on N.S. lobster pounds:
Sydney-Victoria MP Jaime Battiste, the only Mi’kmaw MP in Canada, told CBC in an interview from Eskasoni, N.S., that he was “disheartened” by Saturday’s news.
He referred to the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples report in 1996, which said: “Canada is a test case for a grand notion — the notion that dissimilar peoples can share lands, resources, power and dreams while respecting and sustaining their differences.”
“I’ve just been thinking about this for days now,” Battiste said. “I can’t remember a time in Canadian history where there has been such anger for someone practising their constitutional rights. And I’m trying to ask myself why the anger is now.”
Battiste said there could be a lot of factors at play in this dispute, including fears about COVID-19 and the impact on people’s livelihoods, but he said he’s still “trying to figure it out.”
He said he spoke with federal Public Safety Minister Bill Blair, who told him they would send about 10 per cent of the provincial RCMP officers to the area “to help in this dispute, to calm things down and try to settle it.”
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Minister condemns violence
In a statement on Saturday, Blair condemned the acts of violence and confirmed that he has approved a request from Nova Scotia’s attorney general to increase RCMP resources “as needed in that jurisdiction in order to keep the peace.”
Blair said officers are still on the scene in Middle West Pubnico and are gathering evidence to add to the ongoing investigation.
“The threats, violence and intimidation have to stop,” he said in the statement. “We all need to acknowledge that a lasting resolution to this dispute can only be concluded if it is rooted in the recognition of legitimate Mi’kmaq treaty rights.”
Liberal Halifax MP Andy Fillmore also issued a statement condemning the acts of violence and intimidation, saying they “do nothing to advance a workable solution for all fishers.”
“We remain at the table where we will reach a resolution that respects treaty rights and protects the viability of Nova Scotia’s lobster fishery for all fishers,” the statement said.
On Friday evening, before the fire, a number of Nova Scotia senators issued a news release condemning the violence unfolding over the lobster fishery.
“Regardless of whatever concerns individuals or groups may have, there can be no justification for the vigilantism and blatant racism that is now being witnessed,” the release said.
“We urge everyone involved to remain calm and peaceful and let the discussions currently underway proceed without any further violent acts, racial insults or threats of any kind.”
They called on the RCMP to “restore peace and order.”