10/06/2020 10:54 EDT | Updated 10/06/2020 11:03 EDT

RCMP Investigating After Suspicious Fire Destroys Mi'kmaw Lobster Boat

There's been a dispute over Indigenous fishing rights in Nova Scotia.

Robert Alexander Syliboy/Facebook
Robert Alexander Syliboy posted this Facebook photo of his lobster boat on Monday, which was destroyed in a fire. Syliboy, a member of the Sipekne’katik First Nation, called the incident "part of the uphill battle" and vowed to rebuild.

HALIFAX — A lobster boat belonging to a Mi’kmaw fisher has been destroyed by a suspicious fire at a wharf in southwestern Nova Scotia, near waters where a self-regulated Indigenous fishery is underway.

RCMP Sgt. Andrew Joyce says police are investigating after a fire was reported by a wharf employee just before 6 a.m. local time Monday.

The police spokesman said the lobster boat had been tied to the wharf at Comeauville, N.S., for over six weeks awaiting a mechanical repair and suffered significant damage from the blaze.

Robert Syliboy, a member of the Sipekne’katik First Nation, confirmed in a telephone interview the 11-metre vessel belongs to him and was federally licensed to participate in the commercial fishery beginning next month.

He is among the 10 Mi’kmaw lobster harvesters who participated in the launch last month of a self-regulated fishery outside of the federally regulated season on St. Mary’s Bay. He was using a different boat out of Saulnierville, N.S., for that fishery, which allows boats to set a maximum of 50 traps each.

The fishery is based on the landmark 1999 Supreme Court ruling that found Donald Marshall Jr., a Mi’kmaq man, had a treaty right to fish for eels when and where he wanted, without a licence.

The Marshall decision also said the First Nations in Eastern Canada could fish to earn a “moderate livelihood,” though the court followed up with a clarification two months later saying the treaty right was subject to federal regulation.

Syliboy wrote on his Facebook page that he will find a way to rebuild his livelihood.

“My dad always taught me, it’s not about how many times you get knocked down, it’s about how fast you get back up,” he wrote. “I’m not going anywhere. I’ll stand tall for my nation. This is part of the uphill battle.”

He said the boat that was burned is the one he operated under a communal commercial licence — a class of licence negotiated with First Nations after the Marshall decision that requires Indigenous harvesters to operate under federal rules for conservation, gear-marking and reporting of catch.

The tensions on St. Mary’s Bay were high in the first weeks of the Mi’kmaw moderate livelihood fishery, as non-Indigenous harvesters cut lines and hauled 350 Mi’kmaq traps out of the water. It had appeared the situation had calmed before Monday’s incident.

Colin Sproul, president of the Bay of Fundy Inshore Fishermen’s Association, said his organization does not condone violence. “We condemn any and all violence in the fishery, and we call for calm and peace and dialogue,” he said.

Chris d’Entremont, the federal Conservative MP for West Nova, said on Friday that non-Indigenous fishers are looking for transparency regarding decisions made about the Mi’kmaq First Nation fishery, and there is growing frustration.

“I know there’s been conversations on the Indigenous side, but at this point there’s really very little discussion on the non-Indigenous side,” d’Entremont said in an interview.

He said the federal government has mismanaged talks and created a divide between the two groups, adding that since the Liberals came into government in 2015, non-Indigenous fishers have had a reduced presence in negotiations.

Non-Indigenous fishers are concerned about the financial impact of increased competition from Indigenous fishers, d’Entremont said, adding that current tensions could set relations back years.

“When the government talks about reconciliation, that’s going to put reconciliation in our area off by probably another generation right now, because there’s going to be that mistrust of both sides of this story, and I think its the fault of the government,” he said.

A federal Fisheries Department spokesperson said department officials and Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan have been in regular contact with industry leaders and representatives of Mi’kmaw communities.

The spokesperson declined to confirm how many meetings the department has had with the two groups but said talks are ongoing.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 5, 2020.

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