Fire destroys N.S. lobster pound, police say 'person of interest' hospitalized with injuries
HALIFAX -- A man police say is a “person of interest” is in hospital with life-threatening injuries after a large fire destroyed a commercial building reported to be a lobster pound used by Mi’kmaw fishers.
Shortly after midnight on Saturday, Yarmouth County RCMP and West Pubnico Fire Department responded to a structure fire at a fish plant located at 1065 Highway 335 in Middle West Pubnico, N.S.
RCMP says the building incurred "significant damage," but was not occupied at the time, and no employees were injured.
Sgt. Andrew Joyce of the RCMP confirms that the man taken to hospital was not an employee of the building and is "considered a person of interest in the RCMP’s investigation."
RCMP remain on scene Saturday morning and are investigating the fire as suspicious.
Chief Mike Sack of the Sipekne’katik First Nation confirmed in a statement Saturday morning that the building was "owned by a friend and ally of Sipekne’katik."
"The devastating fire at the lobster pound in Middle West Pubnico further illustrates the need for greater police presence in the region," wrote Sack in an emailed statement. "This should never have happened, and the people responsible should be brought to justice. I do believe with the proper police presence, however, this could have been avoided. I am once again calling on Prime Minister Trudeau and the RCMP to dedicate the necessary resources to this region to protect everyone. I am extremely concerned that someone is going to hurt or worse."
“Our community members are working with the people that own those pounds,” says Sack. “The industry doesn’t like that – so they’re forcing anyone that’s dealing with us out of the industry.”
Jonathan LeBlanc, fire chief for Eel Brook & District Fire Department, says his department was one of eight that received a call to assist the West Pubnico fire department with the structure fire.
Twitter user Pierrette dEntremont posted a video of the blaze early Saturday morning.
“I can’t believe it’s actually happening,” says dEntremont.
LeBlanc says that upon arrival, the building was fully involved, and crews were unable to approach it due to power lines.
Crews focused on protecting exposures to adjacent buildings while the building was destroyed.
LeBlanc estimates that 80 to 120 firefighters from eight area fire departments were at the scene overnight. He says that after several hours, crews were able to contain the fire around 4:30 a.m.
There is no idea of the fire’s cause at this point, and LeBlanc says it will be difficult to determine as the building was fully involved when crews arrived. The fire marshal has been called to investigate.
While LeBlanc wasn’t able to confirm the use of the building, a media representative for Sipekne'katik First Nation confirmed to CTV Atlantic that the building was the same lobster pound where two employees had barricaded themselves in on Tuesday.
RCMP confirmed in a news release that about 200 people were present at two incidents Tuesday night outside lobster pounds in southwestern Nova Scotia, during which employees were prevented from leaving, rocks were thrown, and a vehicle was set on fire.
Jason Marr, a fisher from Sipekne'katik, said he and another Indigenous lobster fisherman were trapped inside the Middle West Pubnico facility after he arrived to store his lobster.
"Somebody followed me to the place in Pubnico, and I wasn't there for three minutes before 200 guys showed up," Marr said in a telephone interview on Wednesday.
He said the non-Indigenous "mob" threw stones at the facility, broke windows and damaged his van, burning its interior. Marr said that when RCMP arrived, they wanted him to leave the building, but he declined and remained barricaded inside.
"They said, `If you don't come out, we're going burn you out,'" he said of the crowd outside. "I watched them pour stuff in my gas tank and my van, slash the tires, cut wires, they pissed all inside of it."
DEMAND FOR INVESTIGATION
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."
"I demand a full and thorough investigation by the proper authorities," Bellegarde said. "I will be monitoring the situation and will update later today."
CALLS FOR CALM
Sack believes the pound wouldn’t have been destroyed had a larger police presence been in place. Despite a man – who is considered a person of interest in connection to the suspicious fire – being sent to hospital with life-threatening injuries, Sack is sympathetic.
“My stomach turned. The last thing we want is for anyone to be hurt,” says Sack. “We pray for strength and courage and for everyone to be safe. Everyone has a family to go home to – we’re not here to fight.”
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."
Tension has been building for weeks between Indigenous and non-Indigenous lobster fishers in southwest N.S.
On Friday, the chief of the Sipekne’katik First Nation said between 150 and 200 lobster traps were lost after non-Indigenous commercial fishers cut lines and destroyed buoys.
The Sipekne'katik band 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, invoke a clarification issued four months after the 1999 ruling, stating the Mi'kmaq treaty rights would be subject to federal regulations to ensure the conservation of the resource, in consultation with First Nations.
Sack calls the incident a “huge step back in the relationship with the commercial fishermen.”
The incident prompted statements of solidarity from various federal cabinet ministers and a pledge to deploy more RCMP officers to the area.
Despite the support, Sack says 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 in an interview. "We need the military to come step in to keep the peace."
"This was retaliation," Sack said. "We're being targeted now. These are hate crimes."
Meanwhile, spokesperson for the Maritime Fishermen's Union, Ruth Innis, describes what is happening in the community as anarchy – noting threats are being hurled from both sides. Innis says commercial fishermen have been vilified but says they’re not.
The Maritime Fisherman’s Union is now calling on Ottawa to appoint an independent mediator to bring everyone to the table.
“If the Government of Canada was doing their job, this would not be happening – communities would be safe, they would be living in peace,” says Innis. “Maybe we should ask Prime Minister Trudeau if he’s happy that his Canadian families are living in fear.”
Despite the apparent setback, the First Nation is pushing forward.
“We had a call with Minister Jordan today – we had a great conversation with her,” says Sack. “We’re looking to move forward with our plan and have the government uphold our treaty rights.”
Meanwhile, Meteghan RCMP have laid charges in relation to the assault of Chief Michael Sack that occurred on Wednesday, October 14, in New Edinburgh. Chris Gerald Melanson, 46, of Digby County, was arrested Friday evening and has been charged with assault. Melanson was released from custody on conditions and is scheduled to appear in Digby Provincial Court on December 21 at 9:30 a.m.
With files from The Canadian Press.
With files from CTV Atlantic's Sarah Plowman
The lobster pound in this story was originally described as a Mi’kmaw-owned lobster pound. It has been clarified by Sipekne’katik First Nation Chief Mike Sack that the building "is owned by a friend and ally of Sipekne'katik".