Cape Breton Regional Police are investigating a fire that caused serious damage to the Membertou II commercial fishing boat early Saturday morning.
Inspector Stephen MacKinnon confirmed police and fire services responded to a call of the boat on fire at the Dobson Yacht club.
“The Fire Marshal will be there on Tuesday to investigate, with the assistance of the (CBRP) identification unit,” he said during a phone interview Sunday morning.
“At this point the fire is deemed suspicious.”
On Oct. 12, around 3:30 a.m., Membertou Chief and Council, Membertou Fisheries Division and boat Captain John Bonham Paul were notified of the blaze.
Pictures of the burned fishing vessel show the boat still floating and the floor intact, which leads Membertou director of fisheries Hubert Nicholas to believe the fire didn’t start from the engine.
“If it was an engine fire, it would have gone from the bottom up,” he told the Cape Breton Post Saturday afternoon.
“Looking at it, it looks like the fire was lit from the back (where the traps were).”
Paul is concerned the fire is related to recent acts of vandalism him and his crew have dealt with since Aug. 30, when they started fishing under a food, social and ceremony (FSC) license.
“We were trying to feed the community,” explained Paul who normally works as a crab fisherman. “We do up bags and go door to door, to give each family what they need.”
Nicholas confirmed none of the lobsters caught have been sold for profit.
Th FSC license is in accordance with the Treaty of 1752, which allows Indigenous communities to fish (or hunt) off season for non-commercial benefits. The lobster Paul and his crew were fishing was given to community members at no charge.
On Aug. 30, Paul and his crew set 100 traps to feed the community. They were all stolen within 18 hours. The cost to replace 100 traps is about $10,000.
Nicholas said they contacted DFC, got new traps and new FCS tags so they could continue. Paul said DFO also started helping them by monitoring the traps they set.
Out of the new traps purchased, only 50 were set to offset loss if they were stolen like the others.
“Two nights ago, (a representative from) DFO called me to say they stopped some (people) in a boat in North Sydney who were trying to take our traps,” Paul said on Saturday.
“They tried to educate them about the 1752 treaty (and why Canadians who are Indigenous can fish off season)… They didn’t charge them though. I kind of wish they had off.”
Paul and his crew collected about 400 pounds of lobster last week, which Nicholas estimates would have fed at least 200 people.
By Saturday afternoon, another Membertou boat has already been put in the water and Paul said his crew would continue fishing to feed community members.
“We’re going to keep fishing and do what we do,” said Paul. “We won’t be deterred by these acts of terrorism. This is our treaty rights.”
Paul is no stranger to acts of aggression from non-Indigenous people when fishing with a FSC licence. In 2011, his boat was surrounded by a number of other fishing boats while Paul was fishing for lobster to feed people during the Membertou Powwow.
Although the loss of the boat isn’t stopping Paul and his crew right now, Nicholas said it will have negative impacts on the community next season.
“Now we’re going to have to build a new boat. That’s something that’s really hard to do. There’s a waiting list of three to five years (to build a new boat),” said Nicholas.
“Plus, the people who were working on the boat, those three or four people don’t have a job anymore. Not only is it a loss of jobs, it’s a loss of (revenue) for the community that goes into building houses and other social activities.”
Paul thinks there is one positive to the Membertou II being torched.
“Hopefully we can use this incident to educate people,” said Paul who’s been a commercial fisherman for 25 years.
“Unknowingly they gave us another podium to speak about our treaty rights.”
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been updated to include new information.
- One of the Peace and Friendship Treaties signed between the British Crown and Mi’kmaq, Maliseet and Passamaquoddy First Nations between 1725 – 1779.
- Peace and Friendship Treaties were created by the British Crown to stop fighting between the English and the Mi’kmaq and other First Nations.
- The Treaty of 1752 was signed on Oct. 1, during Father Le Loutre’s War, between the Mi’kmaq of Shubenacadie and the governor of Nova Scotia.
- It promises the protection of Indigenous fishing, hunting and trading rights.
- Former Mi’kmaq Grand Chief Gabriel Sylliboy was the first to fight for Treaty Rights in the Supreme Court of Canada in 1928 after being charged in Inverness Country with possession of muskrat and fox pelts.
- The judge in Sylliboy’s case said the Treaty of 1752 didn’t apply to him because he was from We’koqma’q not Shubenacadie reserve.
- Today based on stipulations of the Treaty of 1752, Indigenous people from all parts of Nova Scotia can fish or hunt with a food, social and ceremonies license (FCS) off season.
- Treaty rights are protected by the Canadian Constitution.