Nova Scotia

Mi'kmaw fishing vessel destroyed in suspicious fire at N.S. wharf

Police are investigating a suspicious fire that badly damaged a Mi'kmaw fisherman's boat in southwestern Nova Scotia where tensions have been high for weeks around a moderate livelihood fishery. The damage was reported just before 6 a.m. Monday.

Boat belongs to Robert Syliboy of the Sipekne'katik First Nation

The remains of Robert Syliboy's commercial fishing boat at the Comeauville Wharf on Oct. 5, 2020 (Olivier Lefebvre/CBC)

A suspicious fire at a southwestern Nova Scotia wharf has destroyed a boat belonging to a Mi'kmaw fisherman, casting doubt on his ability to join the upcoming commercial lobster season.

Robert Syliboy woke up to a call from a friend early Monday, asking if he had a boat tied up at the Comeauville wharf in Digby County.

When Syliboy replied that he did, the friend told him the vessel might be in flames. Photos soon confirmed the 12-metre boat was indeed Syliboy's.

"Just trying to wrap my brain around this, honestly. It's hard to believe it happened," Syliboy said Monday.

"There's nothing left."

Boat had been at wharf for past 6 weeks

Sgt. Andrew Joyce, an RCMP spokesperson, said police received a call Monday at 5:56 a.m. about the boat fire.

Joyce said the boat had been at the wharf for the last six weeks for mechanical repair. 

The cause of the fire is still under investigation.

Syliboy said police told him they hoped to access video footage of the wharf area, but he had not heard anything else.

Vessel was used for commercial fishing

Syliboy is a Sipekne'katik First Nation fisherman who received one of the new licences in the Mi'kmaw community's moderate livelihood lobster fishery.

But Syliboy said the destroyed boat is the one he uses during the commercial season, which begins at the end of November. He has a smaller vessel he uses for the moderate livelihood fishery.

Mi'kmaw fisherman Robert Syliboy is shown last month at the launch of the Sipekne'katik moderate livelihood fishery. (Nic Meloney/CBC)

Although Syliboy said he was insured, he still has to work through that process and deal with uncertainty as the commercial lobster season draws closer.

"I've got everything I've made tied up into fishing," he said.

Syliboy said his smaller boat fishes traps with a $30,000 to $40,000 value, which he shares with someone else. The larger boat was capable of fishing a larger number of traps with a value between $100,000 and $200,000.

Syliboy also said the livelihood fishery isn't bringing in enough money to live on, especially since they can't commercially sell their catch in Nova Scotia yet, but it was a means to assert treaty rights.

Comeauville is just three kilometres from Saulnierville. Both sit on St. Marys Bay — an area that has been the site of tension between Mi'kmaw and non-Indigenous fishers since the fishery launched last month.

The new Sipekne'katik fishery came 21 years after a landmark Supreme Court ruling in the case of Donald Marshall Jr., which recognized First Nations' rights to earn a moderate living from fishing.

Many commercial lobster fishermen are opposed to the new fishery. They are concerned that fishing outside the federally mandated season will hurt lobster stocks.

Supporters of the Sipekne'katik fishery argue it is tiny compared to the commercial season.

Police are investigating after Robert Syliboy's fishing boat was found destroyed by fire at the Comeauville Wharf on Oct. 5, 2020. (Robert Syliboy/Facebook)

Colin Sproul of the Bay of Fundy Inshore Fishermen's Association said he'd only seen social media posts about the boat burning so "it would be irresponsible to speculate" on what happened.

"But I'll say this firmly: the Bay of Fundy Inshore Fishermen's Association condemns violence in the fishery in any and all of its forms. And we encourage peace and calmness right now from everybody and dialogue," Sproul said.

Syliboy said he is not going to point fingers at who or what may have caused the fire.

A photo showing the charred remains of his boat was posted to his public Facebook profile, where Syliboy's videos about the fishery have earned thousands of views in recent weeks. 

"I have people hatefully commenting all the time, so I really don't know," he said.

With files from Nic Meloney, Olivier Lefebvre and Paul Withers