The port of Pictou was caught up in the middle of a fisheries dispute that even caused the President of the United States to scold our seaport town.
Since the beginning of human settlement in Canada and the United States, the fishing industry has played a significant role in each other’s development as countries. The two nations’ have sometimes traded good will and sometimes traded blows over this lucrative and important natural resource. Many treaties have been signed by both countries and have been challenged by war and by the laws.
When the United States seceded from British rule after the War of Independence, the Treaty of Paris (1783) was signed agreed upon by both countries. Boundaries were drawn up and in Article 3 stated:
“The people of the United States shall continue to enjoy unmolested the right to take fish of every kind on the Grand Bank, also in the Gulf of St Lawrence and at all other places in the sea, where the inhabitants of both countries used at any time heretofore to fish.”
However, for the next thirty years many “annoyances, restrictions and disputes,” challenged the patience of both governments and fishermen alike. Even after the War of 1812 between Canada and United States, the fisheries and who owned what and where was always in dispute.
In the year 1818 a new treaty was drawn up, the agreement, “the Americans gave up the right to fish within three miles of certain Canadian shores; they were allowed within limit, for the purpose of obtaining “shelter, repairs, wood and water.” Again within the next couple of years this agreement was challenged and for the next 68 years, petty differences, strong will and sometimes headlong statesmanship prevailed in both countries over the territorial fisheries. Although during this time period the two nations did make progress in some areas, often there were reprisals on both parts.
The much battled fisheries agreements really came to a head in the year 1886 and it was evident “so soon as the fishing season was opened the plan for the Canadian Government was evident. It was to deny the fishing vessels all facilities not guaranteed by the treaty of 1818-that is fishing vessels of the United States would be permitted to enter Canadian ports for shelter, repairs, wood and water and for no other purpose whatever.” Anything out of the ordinary the Canadian port customs office could hold the letter of the fisheries law and call in Her Majesty’s Royal Navy.
On July 1, 1886, the port of Pictou was following orders and refused the American fishing steamer “Novelty” to take in steam coal or purchase ice or transport fish bound to the United States, she was “compelled to leave without being allowed to obtain fuel necessary for her laeful voyage on a dangerous coast.”
Fact is in 1886, all over the Maritime Provinces; American fishing vessels were turned away, boarded by authorities, chased by the navy or threatened with confiscation. In one instance an American vessel saved the lives of a crew from a wrecked Nova Scotia ship. When the captain put into a “bluenose” port to drop off the rescued crew, he was denied food, provisions and was threatened with the seizure of his vessel.
These not so nice incidents didn’t sit well with the U.S. Congress and then President Grover Cleveland wrote a stinging letter to the Senate in regards to the fisheries disputes with Canada.
In a correspondence dated Dec. 8 1886 to the Senate, President Cleveland describes the “American fishing steamer ‘Novelty’ and the refusal and bad treatment by the port of Pictou, Nova Scotia.” Included in the same publication was “the protest of the Secretary of State in the case of the ‘Novelty’ in the port of Pictou.”
That spring and summer of 1886, the fishery dispute caused great concern in both countries. Threats of war followed, each nation flexing their pose on the other. United States Congress suspended all trade with Canada. The American Senate “advanced a more moderate proposition, to limit the proposed arrest of traffic to water commerce and to Canadian vessels.” The law was passed on March 3, 1887.
Over time cooler heads prevailed and by late 1887, President Cleveland proposed a new treaty. A commission was formed by Great Britain, Canada and United States; an agreement was made by all parties and approved by the president. However, when the treaty was sent to the American Senate and after a long debate, it was turned down.
John Ashton of Bridgeville is a local historian and the province’s representative to the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada.