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N.S. First Nations chief calls for military support after lobster pound fire

Last Updated Oct 17, 2020 at 4:55 pm EDT

Debris from a burnt out fish plant is scattered along the shore in Middle West Pubnico, N.S. on Saturday, Oct. 17, 2020. A large fire destroyed a commercial building that was the scene of a confrontation earlier in the week between Indigenous and non-Indigenous fishermen.Tensions remain high over an Indigenous-led lobster fishery that has been the source of conflict. THE CANADIAN PRESS /Andrew Vaughan

A federal promise of more police resources to contain escalating violence in a southwestern Nova Scotia fishing community met with scant approval Saturday, with opposition critics praising what they perceive as past inaction and one Indigenous community leader calling for military support in the wake of a suspicious fire.

The early morning blaze that destroyed a lobster pound in Middle West pubnico, N.S., capped a week of rising tensions over Indigenous fishing treaty rights.

No one was inside the building at the time, though police say a man believed to be a person of interest in the incident is currently in hospital with life-threatening injuries.

The fire prompted statements of solidarity from various federal cabinet ministers and a pledge to deploy more RCMP officers to the area, but Chief Mike Sack of the Sipekne’katik First Nation said the army is needed to prevent some commercial fishermen from “taking the law into their own hands.”

“They’re doing whatever they want and getting away with it,” he said in an interview. “We need the military to come step in to keep the peace.”

The blaze erupted at the fish plant at around midnight Saturday morning, according to Yarmouth County RCMP and the West Pubnico Fire Department.

RCMP Sgt. Andrew Joyce offered no details about the hospitalized man, but said police remain at the scene and are still investigating the incident.

The fire came in the wake of two violent clashes earlier this week involving hundreds of people outside lobster pounds that handle Indigenous-caught lobster.

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,” 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,” 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 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,” 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,” 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.”

LeBlanc said it’s still too early to identify the cause of the blaze, but the fire marshal’s office is investigating.

The incident comes after recent violent clashes and damage to lobster pounds over the Indigenous fishery in the province.

The 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 Sack argues Indigenous people in Atlantic Canada and Quebec have a treaty right to fish for a moderate livelihood where and when they want, based on a 1999 Supreme Court of Canada decision that cites treaties signed by the Crown in the 1700s.

Many non-Indigenous critics, however, cite a clarification issued four months after the 1999 ruling, stating the Mi’kmaq treaty rights would be subject to federal regulations to ensure fish conservation.

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,” Bellegarde said.

A group of six Nova Scotia senators, meanwhile, condemned what they described as escalating violence against Mi’kmaq fishers. Their remarks came in a statement released just hours before the Middle West Pubnico blaze broke out.

“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 statement 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.”

The senators said the Mounties must “rapidly and effectively uphold their responsibility to restore peace and order.”

Police said Saturday a Digby County man was charged in relation to an assault against Sack on Wednesday in New Edinburgh, N.S.

RCMP said 46-year-old Chris Gerald Melanson was charged on Friday, adding police will “continue to take steps to ensure that those who unlawfully interfere with or threaten the safety of any person or property may be held accountable.”

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