Twenty-seven years ago, violence erupted in Cap Auguet, near Arichat, and a tactical police squad was deployed to quell the disturbance.
For many people in and around the area, this would seem like an outlandish statement. Cap Auguet is a tiny scattering of homes across the harbour from and to the south of Arichat, the shire town of Richmond County.
Cap Auguet, however, is also home to the Clearwater lobster facility. The construction of the Clearwater lobster facility was announced in 1985. Owners John Risley and his brother-in-law Colin MacDonald received a $3.4 million grant from the Department of Regional Industrial Expansion plus a $2 million loan from DEVCO. In total, the price tag for the facility was $8.7 million.
The aim of the project was to buy 2 million pounds of market size lobster from Cape Breton and Newfoundland fishermen and sell them live and cooked to overseas markets.
Local lobster fishermen raised concerns that the company meant to buy canner-sized lobsters and store them until they reached maturity, a process known as lobster farming. This would give Clearwater a monopoly in the local market. Company president Risley gave assurances that lobster farming was not the intention of the company.
In June of 1992 unionized workers at the facility, who had been without a contract for over a year, took to the picket line to demonstrate their frustration at the lack of progress toward a new deal. Workers had rejected three offers from the company presumably because they did not adequately address the concerns of the workers.
The picket line remained peaceful until the company brought in 40 replacement workers and lobster to be processed. In addition, the company had its own security force bolstered by RCMP officers in riot gear.
The RCMP tactical squad, accompanied by police dogs, pushed picketers aside to allow the replacement workers and the lobster to enter the building. Other RCMP officers set up barricades to hold back the picketing workers. This intervention by the police prompted the workers to begin calling them “The Royal Colin MacDonald Police.”
On Thursday June 11, 600 angry strikers and trade union supporters from across Cape Breton stormed the lobster plant. One objective was to oust the 40 replacement workers that the company had brought in. The situation turned nasty as barricades were breached, windows in the guardhouse were smashed, a company security car was overturned, and the replacement workers had to be evacuated by helicopter.
The community largely supported the strikers and condemned the action of the company to use RCMP in riot gear. Richmond municipal council passed three motions to deal with the situation; the appointment of an arbitrator, anti-scab legislation, and an inquiry to determine if the police response was warranted.
Richmond MLA Richie Mann claimed that the confrontation could have been avoided if the Department of Labour had mandated an industrial inquiry at the beginning. Within hours of the June 11 melee at Cap Auguet, Labour Minister Leroy Legere announced that such an inquiry would be conducted.
Too little, too late bemoaned many people in the area particularly entrepreneurs who worried that the reputation of the area would be sullied by the labour unrest.