An Indigenous man from Campbell River is being sued for over $8,500 in federal court after the Canadian Coast Guard destroyed his boat without his knowledge, he says.
Tom Puglas, 76 of the Mamalilikulla First Nation, said it all began while on a salmon fishing trip in 2017. When his 39-foot wood-hulled gillnetter broke down, he moored it along the outside finger of a dock in Port McNeil.
Unable to find diesel engine parts on the north end of Vancouver Island, he drove over three and a half hours south to Nanaimo.
“I brought my parts down to work on my engine and the boat just wasn’t there,” said Puglas from his home in Campbell River.
According to federal court documents, the Canadian Coast Guard was called in on Aug. 22, 2017, after reports Puglas’s vessel was sinking and discharging oil.
The documents claim the Coast Guard contacted Puglas, who said he would remove the vessel from the water and make any necessary repair.
Puglas denies that ever happened.
“They didn’t phone me or anything,” he told Glacier Media. “I checked it maybe once or twice every week or two. The last time I tried to check, it wasn’t there.”
On Sept. 1, 2017, the port authority gave notice Puglas’s boat was being evicted from the harbour because of unpaid moorage fees, an ongoing pollution risk and the ship’s partial sinking, according to a partially redacted document Ship-Source Oil Pollution Fund lawyer Cameron Grant shared with Glacier Media.
According to the lawyer, a survey of the ship once out of water found its equipment had been “ruined by immersion in oily saltwater” and that “the ship and equipment had zero residual value.”
By October, court documents claim the boat was still in the water, a hazard to the environment. That’s when the Coast Guard was said to have contracted a marine repair company to destroy the vessel and its contents.
Puglas said he finally heard what happened to his boat from a friend in Port McNeil who had seen it pulled out of the water behind a gas station. By February 2018, everything, including what Puglas estimated was $55,000 worth of equipment onboard, was destroyed.
“I just couldn’t do anything. I didn’t know where to start.”
INCOME CUT OFF
Puglas spent most of his working life in logging, but when he retired a few years ago, his gillnetter was a welcome relief, allowing him to reconnect with the ocean and bring in an important source of food and income for his wife and two children.
Now, he’s living solely off an old-age pension.
“It’s put a lot of stress on him,” said friend and hereditary chief Jimmy Wilson, who stepped in to help represent Puglas after he couldn’t afford a lawyer.
“He used it to go and get clams, prawns for family consumption — to harvest traditional food for his family. He lost that.”
In a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Wilson wrote the Coast Guard failed to sell off the equipment on the boat to help foot the bill for its destruction, initially assessed at over $11,000 but later adjusted to over $8,500, according to court documents.
“All that was necessary was to have the boat removed from the water and not the excessive action of destroying the vessel with all of the contents,” Wilson wrote Trudeau, later telling Glacier Media the boat contained everything from a hydraulic gill net drum and engine to fishing poles, a radar system and nets.
“This is shameful and further illustrates the systemic racism against Indigenous peoples of Canada.”
When Wilson reached out to government lawyers, he said they never showed him evidence of environmental damage or that the boat sank.
“I’ve asked for the cost of the cleanup of the harbour. Was there actual damage? Was there actual oil in the harbour? The bottom line is they won’t pull back from court,” he said. “We never really got an answer.”
‘THIS MATTER IS WORTH PURSUING’
The case, which has yet to proceed to trial, comes as questions are increasingly raised over old boats left derelict to contaminate B.C.’s coastal waters. In April 2021, the B.C. government announced it would put $9.5 million toward removing more than 100 derelict boats across 1,200 kilometres of coastline.
But when it comes to ships leaking oil, the responsibility falls to the federal government and an independent Crown Corporation known as the Ship-Source Oil Pollution Fund (SOPF).
SOPF compensates victims of oil pollution damage through a polluter-pays model, where ship owners cover the damage caused by their vessel.
Over 90 per cent of the claims made in 2019-20 were referred by the Coast Guard, and of those, most were from wrecks, derelict or abandoned vessels in British Columbia. According to the latest report from the Ship-Source Oil Pollution Fund, 22 claims were made in B.C. between 2019 and 2020.
Wilson said Puglas’s boat doesn’t fit any of those categories. The way the Coast Guard and now SOPF are handling the case raises questions over due process, he said, especially in more remote corners of the province and during the ongoing pandemic.
“Abandoned boats get stripped of equipment,” said Wilson. “The audacity to charge him for destroying his own boat without his knowledge — it’s incomprehensible.”
Wilson said he stepped back from the case after not hearing from the federal lawyers for months.
According to March 5 federal court documents attempting to justify the delay, the SOPF struggled to find someone to serve Puglas due to the COVID-19 closures around Campbell River. SOPF lawyers are now pushing for a trial by the fall.
In an email to Glacier Media, SOPF lawyer Cameron Grant said the fund does not pursue cases where there’s no hope of recovering money, but at the same time, the Crown corporation has a mandate to take all reasonable steps to enforce the “polluter pays” principle.
“Those who have no money cannot pay and there is no point in pursuing them,” he said. “It is considered that this matter is worth pursuing.”
Puglas said that without money for a lawyer, he’s just waiting, trying to figure out what comes next.
FIRST NATIONS CLEAN UP EFFORTS A LESSON
On southern Vancouver Island, funding from the province recently helped the Songhees, Esquimalt, Malahat, Sooke and Beecher Bay First Nations come together to remove 100 derelict boats from local waters over the next nine months.
“We want to be the ambulance for the sea here,” said Beecher Bay Chief Russell Chipps last month. “We’re caring for the ocean here. You can’t just sit around. Some of us have to do the work, and we want to be the warriors who do the work.”
While Wilson lauds that move, on the north part of the island, he said Puglas’s experience shows there needs to be more dialogue between First Nations and government agencies like the Coast Guard.
“I don’t hold any ill will against people in Coast Guard or RCMP, but it would really help to meet the people they’re dealing with instead of parachuting in,” he said. “The more dialogue, everyone getting to meet one another, the better.”
Until then, Wilson worries other people's livelihoods may be unfairly targeted.
“Nobody is accountable for what happened to this man.”
— With files from Darron Kloster, Times Colonist