Suspicious fire on Chapel Island results in loss of 14 cabins on sacred land

By the time the Potlotek Volunteer Fire Department arrived at Chapel Island last Monday morning, the cabins were already fully engulfed by flames. They then headed out across the half kilometer frozen crossing lugging portable pumps on foot.

CHAPEL ISLAND: An overnight fire that police say was intentionally set on Chapel Island destroyed several cabins on land sacred to the Mi’kmaq people.

RCMP advised the fire, which had mulitiple ignition points and destroyed 14 of the approximately 170 cabins on the island, was reported at 12:42 a.m. last Monday.

By the time the Potlotek Volunteer Fire Department arrived at the scene, the cabins were already fully engulfed by flames. Firefighters then lugged portable pumps by foot across the frozen half kilometre crossing to the island.

“The ice is over a foot thick – our fire department is small, so we don’t own any ATVs or snowmobiles,” said Quentin Doucette, deputy chief of the department and a band councillor for Potlotek First Nation. “When we arrived with our gear, we basically arrived to the shore, and some guys were looking at each other and I said ‘grab some gear and start walking.’”

Photos by Quentin Doucette
In the early hours last Monday morning, 14 cabins burned down on the sacred land of Chapel Island, located off of the Potlotek First Nation in what the RCMP are calling “a suspicious fire that had multuple ignition points.”

Members of the department, without having direct access to a fire truck on the island, borrowed a chainsaw en route to the scene, and cut a square-chunk out of the frozen Bras d’Or Lake to feed their pumps.

It was the team’s first experience using the new portable pumps as Doucette said he intended to wait for nicer weather before training the department on how to use them but they ended up taking a crash-course in the line of duty.

With assistance from the St. Peter’s Volunteer Fire Department, they were able to keep the blaze from spreading to the St. Anne’s Mission Church, the Glebe House, or any other cabins.

Nobody lives on the island, but Chapel Island has been a historical meeting place for Mi’kmaq from all over the Maritimes for generations. The Chapel Island Volunteer Fire Department, along with assistance from the St. Peter’s Volunteer Fire Department, battled a significant fire on the island on March 11, which has been deemed by the RCMP as suspicious.

Chapel Island is a traditional gathering place for the Mi’kmaq people, who have been meeting on the island for hundreds of years – predating European contact.

It’s the traditional meeting place for the grand council, and Mi’kmaq chiefs from across the seven districts would travel by canoe, and by foot, each summer to meet to negotiate fishing and hunting territories, ratify treaties, and pass laws.

“We are fortunate enough that it did happen when it did, when there was access by ice, because any other time of year when it’s open water, trying to get across would have been more difficult,” Doucette told The Reporter.

“Trying to get across, we’d have to go hunt for a boat, which would have made it more time consuming and resulting in a potentially greater loss.”

The easiest way for the culprits to have ventured to the island and escape would have been via the wharf as it is the closest access point, but they could have come from anywhere as right now the Bras d’Or is a frozen lake.

Phillip Prosper, Keptin of the Mi’kmaq Grand Council, said he received an offer from a non-native community member to help anyone who needs to rebuild their cabin on Chapel Island, but this is something Doucette explains people are divided about.

“Some people don’t think they should rebuild as it is sacred land,” he said. “But, I have been vocal about perhaps now is a time to think about repairing the Glebe House, as a first step.”

The RCMP are being assisted by the Office of the Fire Marshall, as well as the Inverness and Richmond RCMP Street Crime Enforcement Unit and the Forensic Identification Section.

This was the scene for first-responders as several cabins were fully engulfed by flames when volunteer firefighters arrived on Chapel Island shortly before 1 a.m. on March 11. RCMP say 14 of the approximately 170 cabins on the island burned down.