07/11/2013 10:34 EDT | Updated 09/10/2013 05:12 EDT

Complaint filed with public sector integrity commissioner in seawall dispute

A group of residents working to replace a crumbling seawall that protects a Nova Scotia village from the punishing waves of the Atlantic Ocean say they're taking their fight to an independent federal agency in a last-ditch effort to prove Ottawa is responsible for the structure.

The Friends of Gabarus Society has filed a complaint with the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner's office, which investigates complaints of wrongdoing in the public sector, alleging that the Fisheries Department has neglected to fix the seawall.

Residents of the 300-year-old fishing community in Cape Breton have long argued that Ottawa, which built the seawall in the 1940s, owns the structure and is responsible for maintaining it.

But Fisheries has repeatedly said the wall sits almost entirely on Nova Scotia-owned land and is therefore a provincial and municipal responsibility.

Resident Tim Menk says the 300-page document, known as a disclosure, alleges there are no records of the federal government having divested the wall and therefore it has misused a public asset and created a danger to public safety, among several other alleged violations.

"The Department of Fisheries and Oceans has an obligation here that has been undischarged, in fact numerous obligations, and we are going to hold them to account as best we can," Menk said in a recent interview from his home in Gabarus.

"If they're unwilling to admit or accept that they do have that responsibility, we feel it it's our responsibility to prove to the extent that we can that they do and that they need to do something about this because it's a matter of urgent public safety."

The group has been lobbying for Fisheries to repair the seawall for years and has compiled hundreds of documents to support their arguments, most of which are included in the detailed disclosure.

A spokesman for the Fisheries Department would not comment Thursday on the disclosure filed with the integrity commissioner, adding that it stands by its previous position on the wall's ownership.

Menk said with hurricane season underway, the 70 residents that live in Gabarus are anxious and most have lost all hope that funding to repair and replace the twisting seawall will ever materialize.

"There's no one here that has a great level of optimism given the decades of neglect and the repeated denial of responsibility," said Menk. "We'd like to have them do the right thing — what should have been done decades ago.

"But a lot of people aren't holding their breath."

Residents have met in recent weeks to discuss emergency plans in the event of a breach of the deteriorating seawall. The last breach in the early 1980s caused flooding that cut off homes in Gabarus.

Edith Lachapelle, spokeswoman for the public sector integrity commissioner, said if the office determines the claim should be investigated, a team will look into it and make a recommendation to the commissioner on whether wrongdoing has occurred.

A decision letter and case report would then be tabled in Parliament with recommendations, said Lachapelle.

Last month, the Cape Breton Regional Municipality requested funding from the provincial and federal governments for repairs, which Nova Scotia had assessed last summer at $600,000 for the north half of the wall.

Enterprise Cape Breton Corp. has said it is evaluating the municipality's proposal, while the province's Natural Resources Department said last month that it would not contribute funding as it is the federal government's responsibility.