In a letter to residents of Gabarus, acting Fisheries Minister Gail Shea said federal officials have determined that their 400-metre long seawall sits almost entirely on Nova Scotia-owned land and is therefore a provincial and municipal responsibility.
"The Government of Canada cannot assume a general responsibility for shoreline protection throughout the country regardless of the owner of the land or adjacent property," Shea said in the letter dated Nov. 30.
"Furthermore, repair of the seawall in Gabarus is not within the mandate of Fisheries and Oceans Canada nor does the Department have an appropriate mechanism for channelling funds for such undertakings."
The letter — provided by a community group pushing for the seawall's repair — comes after Fisheries and Oceans and Public Works sought advice earlier this year from the Justice Department.
But it has done little to quell the concerns of Tim Menk, a member of a group called the Friends of Gabarus who have been in a four-year battle to find the money to fix the structure.
"It only fulfils the lowest expectations," Menk said Monday from Gabarus.
"The acting minister, the minister and the legal staff of DFO are entitled to their own opinions on this issue, but they're not entitled to their own facts."
The local fishing industry, road access to the 300-year-old village and several private homes are at risk if the wall fails, residents say. About 70 people live in Gabarus year-round, but that number can triple in the summer.
Menk said the letter — which also acknowledges that Ottawa owns two small areas of land at one end of the seawall — should be enough to convince federal officials that they have a role in repairing it before it crumbles altogether.
"One wonders why there is no attempt to collaborate even to a limited extent because provably they own land underneath a deteriorated structure," said Menk.
Earlier this year, the provincial government issued a report that said the situation in Gabarus was "urgent" and recommended three options for long-term fixes, all of which involve replacing the wall and cost anywhere from $4.3 million to $5.3 million.
Nova Scotia Natural Resources Minister Charlie Parker said the federal government was shirking its responsibilities by not claiming ownership of the seawall, adding that the province is not willing to cough up any more money.
"The record shows that the Gabarus seawall is a federally-owned structure and it is the federal government’s responsibility to address the serious structural concerns that could lead to failure of the wall, and potential damage to homes and fishing infrastructure," Parker said in a statement.
Part of the dispute can be traced back to 1995, when responsibility for harbour operations was transferred to the Fisheries Department from Transport Canada. Since then, the Fisheries Department has divested some assets such as wharfs and breakwaters and no longer subsidizes repairs, Menk said.
The Fisheries Department has said the Gabarus wharf was divested in 2001, but the seawall was not because it was not the federal government's to divest.
Still, Fisheries commissioned the Public Works Department to conduct two studies on the wall in 1995 and 1999. One was a structural study and the other was a divestiture program report encompassing the seawall and wharf.
The Justice Department took into account that history before coming to its conclusion, said Nathalie Levesque, an acting regional director for the Fisheries Department's Small Craft Harbours division. She declined to go into detail, citing solicitor-client privilege.
"We never found any evidence that we owned the seawall and we've never made commitments to maintain the seawall," Levesque said from Moncton, N.B.
Heather Hayes, a resident of Gabarus, said the federal decision is aggravating but also hardens the resolve of the community.
"We won't be stopped," Hayes said. "This is another little bump on the road."
Menk said the Friends of Gabarus intend to file a complaint with the public sector integrity commissioner before Christmas over the federal decision.