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Nova Scotia fire investigators are combing through the charred rubble of a lobster warehouse that was destroyed in a blaze overnight Thursday, more than a year after the same building was vandalized by an angry mob during a dispute over Indigenous fishing rights.

The large fire at the lobster plant in New Edinburgh, N.S., outside Digby, could be seen from several kilometres away and took firefighters about five hours to extinguish. Flying embers forced police to evacuate people from nearby homes in the rural community.

The Nova Scotia RCMP have handed their investigation over to the province’s Office of the Fire Marshal, which is trying to determine the cause. An RCMP spokesperson said it’s too early to say if investigators are treating the blaze as suspicious.

No one was in the plant at the time, and no one was injured.

“There’s nothing left of the building,” said Corporal Chris Marshall, a spokesperson for the Nova Scotia RCMP. “It was totally destroyed – it’s down to the foundation. They brought in an excavator and knocked the building down because they couldn’t get the fire to completely go out.”

Nova Scotia’s southwestern shore has been the centre of an occasionally violent conflict over the Sipekne’katik First Nation’s attempts to operate their own commercial lobster fishery outside the federally regulated season.

Non-Indigenous commercial fishermen, whose season begins Tuesday, have complained that the Mi’kmaq band’s growing fishery is hurting lobster stocks, fuelling a lucrative black market and depressing prices for the prized crustacean.

Last fall, the tension boiled over. A group of fishermen began confronting Mi’kmaq boats on the water, cutting traps and ransacking the New Edinburgh plant, where Indigenous fishermen had been storing live lobster. A second plant in Middle West Pubnico, N.S., was also attacked and later burned to the ground.

A 24-year-old man from Yarmouth County was charged with arson in relation to that fire. A string of suspicious fires have also destroyed several Mi’kmaq-owned boats around the province. Last December, four men were arrested after a Mi’kmaw fisherman from Pictou Landing First Nation, on the Northumberland Strait, was shot at while trying to stop people from stealing his traps.

Sipekne’katik Chief Mike Sack offered little comment on the fire Friday, other than to say his band had recently stopped using the New Edinburgh plant.

“We were relieved to hear it was empty during the fire,” he said in a statement. “It is always unfortunate when property damage occurs particularly this close to the season and the holidays. Our thoughts are with everyone affected.”

Chief Sack’s band, along with several other Mi’kmaq communities in Atlantic Canada, say they’re merely exercising their right to fish outside the federally regulated season as part of a “moderate livelihood” fishery – a right upheld by the Supreme Court of Canada more than two decades ago.

The court’s landmark Marshall Decision said East Coast First Nations can fish commercially to improve their economic situation, but later clarified that the federal government has the right to regulate that fishery to enforce conservation measures.

Disagreement over that regulation has led to tense scenes on and off the water in Nova Scotia. Earlier this month, a 37-year-old man from Sipekne’katik was arrested and charged after he allegedly pursued and threatened fishery officers conducting patrols in St. Mary’s Bay with the Coast Guard.

Some Indigenous fishermen are trying to defuse the situation, however. This fall, four Mi’kmaq communities in Nova Scotia – Acadia, Annapolis Valley, Bear River and Glooscap First Nations – announced the launch of government-approved moderate livelihood fisheries.

Those bands say they’re co-operating with Fisheries and Oceans Canada because they don’t want their fishermen to fear their gear and equipment might be seized.

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