Fire destroys lobster facility in southwest Nova Scotia amid escalating fishery tensions

October 17, 2020
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.

Videos posted to social media show a large fire and clouds of billowing smoke coming from the building.

The blaze broke out at one of two facilities raided 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.

“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. He said the West Pubnico fire department stayed behind to monitor the situation and ensure the fire doesn’t pick back up again.

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 that was raided was in New Edinburgh, N.S.

‘Very bad news’

Sack said 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.

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

Mi’kmaw fisherman Jason Marr spoke with host Portia Clark about barricading himself inside a lobster pound in Middle West Pubnico, N.S., while outside a mob burned and vandalized vehicles. 8:11

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.”

Sipekne’katik Chief Mike Sack called on Thursday for the federal government to provide better protection. (CBC)

Sack later said in a written statement that the facility was owned by a “friend and ally” of the First Nation. He said “this could have been avoided” if there were a proper police presence in the area. He will be holding a news conference at 1:30 p.m. AT (12:30 p.m. ET).

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.

‘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.”

N.S. Opposition leader Tim Houston reiterated that position 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.”

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:

Bernadette Jordan says there is no need for violence, and described what happened this week as “disgusting.” 6:29

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.”

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