Indigenous

The coast guard destroyed his boat without asking. Now, a federal agency wants him to pay $8,500 bill

Tom Puglas, a First Nations elder on Vancouver Island, says he planned to repair his aging boat. But before he could — and without any warning, he says — the coast guard destroyed the boat, which it says was sinking and leaching oil. Now, a federal agency wants Puglas to pay the $8,500 bill.

Tom Puglas, 76, a First Nations elder, is being sued to recover cost of destroying his old boat

Tom Puglas, in an undated photo, is seen fishing for halibut. (Submitted by Tom Puglas)

Tom Puglas, 76, says he had just spent thousands of dollars on parts to fix the engine of his aging, second-hand fishing boat when he received a phone call from a friend in the fall of 2017 telling him his boat was gone from the harbour.

He later learned through a friend, he said, that his boat and all the equipment on it had been destroyed by the Canadian Coast Guard — and he was sent an $8,500 bill to cover the cost.

"I never did get no contact from the coast guard. I didn't know until I was going to fix my boat," said Puglas, who lives in Campbell River, B.C., located on Vancouver Island, and had his boat 200 kilometres away in Port McNeil Harbour.

"My boat wasn't there."

According to court documents, the coast guard says it contacted Puglas in August and September of 2017 to tell him the boat was sinking and leaching oil. 

Puglas denies these claims.

The loss of the boat was a financial blow to Puglas. Fishing provided some extra money for his family after he retired from logging. A member of the Mamalilikulla First Nation, Puglas lives with his wife on the ground floor of his house, while his son and his family live upstairs.

"It was my money-making boat for fishing," he said.

According to court documents, in October 2017, the coast guard hauled Puglas's boat from Port McNeil Harbour because the vessel was slowly sinking and leaching oil. Four months later, the coast guard destroyed the boat.

The documents do not say whether the coast guard ever informed Puglas that it planned to destroy his boat.

Puglas, 76, is being sued in Federal Court by the Ship-source Oil Pollution Fund to repay the cost of the coast guard destroying his boat without his permission. (Submitted by Tom Puglas)

Puglas said he didn't know where the boat was after it was pulled from the water, and he wasn't given an opportunity to retrieve his belongings.

Months later, Puglas was hit with another surprise. 

He received a letter in 2019 from a low-profile federal agency based in Ottawa called the Ship-source Oil Pollution Fund with a demand he pay the $8,500 bill for the removal and destruction of his boat.

The federal agency is mandated to recover the costs from ship owners who cause marine pollution. The agency had reimbursed the coast guard for part of the cost.

Puglas said the agency kept "bugging" him to pay a bill he can't afford since he no longer has his boat.

"I go out with my brother and try to make some money, and I wasn't making as much as when I had my own boat," said Puglas, who has no lawyer.

"My brother noticed I haven't been myself lately.... I am worrying too much about all that stuff." 

Agency pushes lawsuit forward

This past August, the agency filed a lawsuit in Federal Court against Puglas to force payment. 

The case remained dormant until February, when the court notified the agency that it was preparing to toss the case because there had been no movement in six months.

In a bid to keep the case alive, the agency said in court filings it couldn't find anyone to serve Puglas with the statement of claim until this past January, when it found a service in Nanaimo, about 210 kilometres southeast of Campbell River.

Anne Legars, right, is the administrator for the Ship-source Oil Pollution Fund and Mark Gauthier, left, is the deputy administrator. The federal agency is mandated to recover the costs from ship owners who cause marine pollution. (Ship-source Oil Pollution Fund/sopf.gc.ca/)

In its statement of claim, the agency says the coast guard contacted Puglas twice, beginning in August 2017, about his boat that was slowly sinking. Puglas told the coast guard he planned to pull the boat out, according to the document. 

Puglas denies the coast guard contacted him about problems with the boat.

James Wilson, 65, a friend of Puglas's and a former fisherman who lives in Campbell River, tried to act as his representative to deal with the agency's lawyer.   

"I said that I would speak in court for Tom, when it came to the day, and please give me the details to the link to speak at this court hearing," Wilson said of his effort to prepare for a potential hearing.

"I had no idea where the court was, whether it was going to be in Hull, Que., or Ottawa ... I didn't hear from them for months."

Wilson said the coast guard had options besides destroying Puglas's boat and belongings. 

"They chose the most extreme. Once it was out of the water, it was no danger to the harbour," said Wilson. 

"Now, he is being double penalized."

Letter sent to prime minister

The agency's statement of claim says the coast guard decided to destroy the boat on its own.

Wilson wrote to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's office in October 2020 saying Puglas was a victim of "systemic racism against Indigenous people." 

Trudeau's office responded in May, referring the matter to Transport Minister Omar Alghabra's office.

CBC News contacted Fisheries and Oceans Canada, which oversees the coast guard.

The minister's office referred CBC News to Transport Canada, which said in an email that it would defer to the Ship-source Oil Pollution Fund because it is an independent agency.

In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for the agency said it conducted "due diligence" and determined Puglas could pay the bill.   

"Mr. Puglas has previously advised the office of the administrator that he cannot pay the claim against him," the statement says. "The administrator pursues recovery only where it is reasonable to do so."

Puglas is a constituent of NDP MP Rachel Blaney, who is looking into his case. (CPAC)

NDP MP Rachel Blaney, whose riding includes Campbell River, said she is looking into the issue.

"This is a huge bill, and for someone who doesn't have a lot of resources," said Blaney. 

Wilson wrote a letter to the agency's lawyer in November 2019 listing all the items left on Puglas's boat. It says the value of the belongings totalled more than $50,000, including power tools and a marine diesel stove worth $16,000 and a $5,000 sockeye gill net.

Under the legislation, the agency could have used the items to cover the boat's destruction costs, said Wilson.

The agency provided CBC News with an assessment that concluded the vessel could not be put back in the water. 

"There is zero residual value in salvage of the electronics, machinery or any components onboard the vessel," the report says.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jorge Barrera is a Caracas-born, award-winning journalist who has worked across the country and internationally. He works for CBC's Indigenous unit based out of Ottawa. Follow him on Twitter @JorgeBarrera or email him jorge.barrera@cbc.ca.

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