The RCMP descended on a group of small Acadian fishing villages in Nova Scotia over the weekend in an attempt to stop escalating violence there, setting up road checkpoints, bringing in tactical officers and establishing a heavy police presence after a suspicious fire destroyed a lobster pound just a few days after it was ransacked by an angry mob.
The tense standoff continues in the southwestern corner of the province, where for weeks local fishermen have been protesting, sometimes violently, against the launch of a Mi’kmaq First Nation’s “moderate livelihood” lobster fishery outside of the federally regulated season.
But Chief Mike Sack of the Sipekne’katik First Nation said he doesn’t welcome the RCMP, and said the army is needed to prevent commercial fishermen from “taking the law into their own hands.”
“They’re doing whatever they want and getting away with it,” he said. “We need the military to come step in to keep the peace.”
Friday night’s fire, at a lobster holding facility in Middle West Pubnico that was being used by Mi’kmaq fishermen, erupted hours after police arrested and charged a man in relation to an assault against Mr. Sack in New Edinburgh earlier in the week.
No one was inside the building at the time of the fire, though police said a man believed to be a person of interest in the suspicious fire was sent to hospital with life-threatening injuries.
The incident prompted statements of solidarity from various federal cabinet ministers and a pledge to deploy more RCMP officers to the area.
The suspicious fire is the latest in the escalating crisis over Indigenous fishing treaty rights in Nova Scotia, coming just three days after a van was torched while two Mi’kmaq fishermen were barricaded inside a fish plant that was later ransacked, and a week after a lobster boat belonging to another Sipekne’katik fishermen was burned at a wharf.
“We’re committed to resolving this event as peacefully as we can,” said Sergeant Andrew Joyce of the Nova Scotia RCMP. “We’re trying to de-escalate this and humanize everybody involved and have a peaceful resolution to something that’s gone on far too long.”
The blaze capped a week of violence that included two clashes involving hundreds of people outside lobster pounds that store Indigenous-caught lobster. The head of a local fisheries union has since quit, saying he fears for his safety, and the Sipekne’katik chief suspects the fire was a response to the arrest of the man who attacked him at a protest.
“This was retaliation,” Mr. Sack said. “We’re being targeted now. These are hate crimes.”
On Sunday, the RCMP announced they’d made another arrest – a 31-year-old man from Yarmouth County, who was charged with setting a van on fire outside a lobster pound in New Edinburgh.
Federal opposition leaders, meanwhile, said the blaze that gutted the lobster pound in Middle West Pubnico was the result of past government inaction.
Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said he has approved a request by Nova Scotia’s Attorney-General to step up the RCMP presence in the region in an effort to keep the peace.
“The recent acts of violence in Nova Scotia are unacceptable and I strongly condemn them,” he said in a statement.
“The current tensions cannot continue,” Mr. Blair added. “The temperature of this dispute must be lowered, now. The threats, violence and intimidation have to stop.”
The move fell short for two of the federal opposition leaders.
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole said the government is not doing enough to ensure public safety and find a peaceful resolution to the fisheries crisis.
He said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau “cannot abdicate responsibility in this case or hide behind empty words.”
“His government’s dismal handling of this situation and his lack of leadership are undoing decades of relationship building … and putting lives and livelihoods at risk,” Mr. O’Toole said in a statement.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh called the violence against the Indigenous fishers “terrorism.”
“The Mi’kmaq people desperately need help now,” he said on Twitter. “This must be stopped.”
Various federal ministers said Mr. Sack’s concerns for his community were well-founded.
Both Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan and Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett said they spoke with the chief on Saturday to express support for the community and Indigenous treaty rights.
“We share the urgent priority for the safety of his community,” Ms. Bennett said on Twitter. “Canadians are appalled at this assault on the Mi’kmaq people.”
Jonathan LeBlanc, fire chief for Eel Brook District Fire Department, said his team got a call around midnight about a blaze at a large commercial structure in West Pubnico.
He described the plant as “a lost cause,” but said crews were able to prevent damage to adjacent buildings.
“There was no hope of saving it,” Mr. LeBlanc said of the building, noting it was engulfed in flames when fire crews arrived and the wind was stoking the embers.
“The power lines to the building were arcing out quite severely. That made it very difficult for us to get close to extinguish it.”
Mr. LeBlanc said it’s still too early to identify the cause of the blaze, but the fire marshal’s office is investigating.
Non-Indigenous protesters oppose the band’s decision to start a commercial lobster fishing business that has operated outside the federally regulated lobster season since mid-September.
But Mr. Sack argues Indigenous people in Atlantic Canada and Quebec have a treaty right to fish for a “moderate livelihood” – a right upheld by the Supreme Court of Canada.
Many non-Indigenous critics, however, cite a clarification issued by court, stating the Mi’kmaq treaty rights would be subject to federal regulations to ensure fish conservation.
Yet Mr. Sack argued fishing seasons are based on the economy and trade, and the small Indigenous fishery doesn’t affect conservation.
“The commercial fishermen are just not wanting to make less money,” he said. “They’re afraid to share an asset.”
On Twitter Saturday, Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde said he’s reached out to the RCMP and the federal government to express First Nations' “deep concern” over the fire.
“I demand a full and thorough investigation by the proper authorities,” Mr. Bellegarde said.
With a report from The Canadian Press
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