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Dead lobster and other refuse are seen strewn around a freezer in West Pubnico, N.S., in an Oct. 14, 2020 handout photo.

Colby Goodwin/The Canadian Press

Nova Scotia RCMP are under fire for failing to stop an angry mob from attacking two rural storage facilities holding Mi’kmaq lobster, throwing rocks, setting a van ablaze and restraining fishermen in one of the most violent confrontations yet in a dispute over the fishery.

RCMP say a group of around 200 people blocked employees from leaving a lobster storage facility in Middle West Pubnico on Tuesday night, five hours after a similar-sized crowd surrounded workers at a facility in New Edinburgh, N.S., about a 110 kilometres north. In both cases, police were on the scene as the mob pelted vehicles and the buildings with rocks.

In Middle West Pubnico, two Mi’kmaq fishermen say they were followed and barricaded inside by the mob, threatened and saw thousands of pounds of Indigenous-caught lobster destroyed after the group ransacked the building. One of the fishermen, Jason Marr, said the crowd slashed his tires, vandalized his truck and threatened to burn the building down with him inside.

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The disputed Mi’kmaw lobster fishery has the law on its side

“They threw rocks and smashed every window. They said, ‘If you don’t come out we’re going burn you out.’ I watched them pour stuff in my gas tank and my van, slash the tires, cut wires,” he said.

The RCMP, who struggled to calm the crowd down, say they’re investigating both incidents – but have been widely criticized by Mi’kmaq communities and Indigenous leaders across the country for allowing what one local chief called an act of "terrorism.”

The vigilantism is an escalation in the fight over a Mi’kmaq band’s moderate livelihood fishery, which launched last month despite protests from non-Indigenous fishermen in southwestern Nova Scotia. Members of the Sipekne’katik First Nation, which issued 11 lobster licences outside the federally mandated commercial season, say they’ve been threatened, harassed and had equipment stolen and sabotaged ever since.

“You swore an oath to uphold the law and protect the people? So why is it that the law has been broken multiple times and no one is arrested?” said Robert Syliboy, a Sipekne’katik fisherman whose boat was burned in a suspicious fire last week while docked at a wharf.

“I fear for our people. This has gotten way out of hand. … This is a mob of hatred.”

Nova Scotia RCMP said in a statement that its officers tried to de-escalate the situation with the two Mi’kmaq fishermen who were surrounded, but “unfortunately events escalated with further damages incurred.” In New Edinburgh, officers “attempted to mediate” the situation and extinguished a vehicle fire, the RCMP said.

The Sipekne’katik fishermen are operating a fishery outside of the federally regulated season, based on the Supreme Court’s 1999 Marshall decision that ruled East Coast Indigenous groups have the right to fish for a “moderate livelihood,” although a second ruling stated this was subject to federal regulation.

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The head of the union representing commercial, non-Indigenous fishermen condemned the attack on the two lobster facilities. He blamed the federal department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada for allowing frustration over the Indigenous fishery to grow, while excluding commercial fishermen from negotiations with the Mi’maq over an Indigenous-managed fishery.

“This is a sad day for Nova Scotia,” said Colin Sproul of the Fundy Inshore Fishermen’s Association. “I was concerned about this three years ago, and that’s why I wanted to have this resolved then so we could avoid this kind of thing from ever happening. We need to have peaceful co-existence.”

He accused federal Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan of “hiding under a desk” and issuing talking points instead of resolving the tension between the Mi’kmaq and non-Indigenous fishermen.

Ms. Jordan said she was appalled by the two incidents in Digby County and appealed for calm.

“I strongly condemn the actions of every individual who destroyed property, committed violence, or uttered threats,” she posted on Facebook. “There is no place for this kind of violence or intimidation. ... Right now, I am calling on everyone involved to take a step back, and bring calm and understanding to the situation.”

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde urged the RCMP, federal and provincial governments to intervene before “someone gets badly injured or possibly killed.”

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He said the lobster conflict has been steadily escalating for more than a month, adding it has never been a commercial disagreement.

“The actions of non-Indigenous fishers are meant to harass and intimidate First Nations with whom they share the waters and the resources,” he said in a statement. “The Supreme Court of Canada made it amply clear in its Marshall decision that Indigenous peoples have a right to fish in those waters and First Nations should not be bullied off the water in this thuggish manner.”

Mr. Bellegarde also warned that “continued inaction by the police and the unwillingness of the federal government to intervene directly in this dispute” only serves to increase the risk of racial violence and lasting damage to communities.

“Justice must be served and this intimidation must end,” he said.

The chief of Sipekne’katik First Nation, meanwhile, says the angry mob was unimpeded by police, who looked on as they attacked the two lobster facilities.

“Last night I was afraid somebody would die,” he said. “Local fishermen attacked two lobster buying facilities and did a lot of damage, burned vehicles, took lobsters. Whatever they wanted to do, happened.”

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The chief said he’s called an emergency meeting with his council to figure out what can be done to ensure our people’s safety.

“My reaction is, I can’t believe how they are getting away with these terrorist, hate crime acts and the police are there,” he said.

With reports from Kristy Kirkup and The Canadian Press

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