A First Nations leader called on Ottawa to send the military into fishing communities in southwestern Nova Scotia after a suspicious fire at a lobster pound early Saturday capped a week of rising tensions over Indigenous fishing treaty rights.
Yarmouth County RCMP and the West Pubnico Fire Department responded to the blaze at a Middle West Pubnico, N.S., fish plant around midnight.
Sgt. Andrew Joyce said a man who is considered a person of interest in the fire is in hospital with life-threatening injuries. He said police are still on the scene and the investigation is ongoing.
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.
Chief Mike Sack of the Sipekne’katik First Nation said some commercial fishermen are “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.”
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 building 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 statment 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.”