Indigenous rights being violated
On September 17, licensed Mi’kmaq fishers from the Sipekne’katik First Nation set up a “moderate livelihood” fishery off the coast of Nova Scotia – something that is both their treaty right and their ancestral right. However, this decision to begin fishing was met with racism in the form of violence, blockades, destroyed equipment, and at least one person hospitalized.
This current issue can be traced back to a Supreme Court ruling from 1999, but has basis as far back as the 1700s. The supreme court case was in regard to Donald Marshal who went fishing for eels, but when he tried to sell them, he was arrested on the basis of trying to sell without a license. However, it was found under the basis of 1760 and 1761 peace and friendship treaties between the Mi’kmaq and the British that he had a treaty right to fish for a “moderate livelihood” wherever and whenever he’d like. However, two months after that court ruling, it was “clarified” that the Mi’kmaq didn’t have a right to “open-ended accumulation of wealth” but that their fishing was only for “necessities.” As well they were told their treaty rights were not unlimited and it was possible that Indigenous fisheries to be regulated with public concerns in mind such as the conservation of fish populations. This “clarification” is at the heart of this issue.
When the Indigenous fishery began operating on September 17, two months before the season opened for non-Indigenous fishers, non-Indigenous fishers were stirred into a violent frenzy. They took issue with the fact that Mi’kmaq fishers could put out their traps while they could not, with commercial fishers only being allowed to fish between November to May since the summer months are a time when lobsters molt their shells and mate. It’s because of this lack of clarification of what is a “moderate” lifestyle that commercial fishers are concerned, and believe Indigenous fishing will hurt conservation efforts. If that was the case, according to this ruling, Indigenous fishing could be regulated.
Professor Tony Charles, a fisheries management expert says that the Indigenous fishing poses no harm to lobster populations. The Indigenous band gave out a limited number of licenses to Indigenous fishers with their own restrictions to ensure conservation measures would remain in place. With only 11 boats, with less than 50 traps each, they are not a concern to lobster populations. During the regular fishing season there are thousands of boats, each allowed up to 350 traps, and Clearwater Lobster, owned by Nova Scotia’s richest man, John Risley, fishes with one massive boat carrying 6,500 traps. So it’s clear that the Mi’kmaq moderate livelihood is not the real threat to lobster populations.
Marc Miller, Minister of Indigenous Services said of the matter “Mi’kmaq have a right to a moderate livelihood, this is a right that was affirmed in 1999 a right which has existed since 1760… this is something that is subject to regulation and it needs to continue along the path to ironing that out with DFO and figuring out what that means so the Mi’kmaq people can have that crystalize and can continue fishing in peace.”
However, despite these assurances hundreds of commercial fishers raided two lobster pounds on October 13, 2020. They stole or destroyed equipment and lobsters, burned down a van and threatened to burn down the pound with Indigenous fishers still barricaded inside. When RCMP arrived, the number of officers on the scene were unable to contain the hundreds of rioters involved, and no one was arrested at that time. On October 17, one of the two Indigenous lobster pounds that was raided was burned down with one man being hospitalized with life-threatening injuries from the fire. The origin of the fire has not been determined yet, but for obvious reasons it is believed to be suspicious. No one has been charged yet from either the raids nor the fire. One man was charged in assault in another case unrelated to either the raids or the fire.
Mike Sack, chief of the Sipekne’katik said in an interview with CBC, “We didn’t come here at all to fight anyone and we’re not here to do that. We’re here to fight for our right [to fish for a moderate livelihood] and that’s it.”
However, he was concerned with the lack of action on behalf of the government, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), and the RCMP to resolve the issues facing Indigenous fishers.
At the moment there is still no resolution in sight. Indigenous fishers are still struggling with fishing lines being cut, traps being destroyed, they can’t buy equipment or sell their catches.
On October 16, a day before the pound was burned to the ground, Justin Trudeau called for an end to the violence and the harassment that is happening. “We need to make sure the security and police are there to ensure everyone is protected as well … but we need to find a solution.” Even as he said that, negotiations between Indigenous fishers, the DFO, and the government are at a standstill, with no clarification of what is a “moderate” lifestyle, and no regulations being defined. At the same time, nothing is being done to stop the intimidation of Indigenous fishers and the destruction of their fishing equipment.
This isn’t the first time Indigenous peoples have faced adversity trying to exercise their treaty rights to fish. Indigenous fishers have faced adversity in the past in the form of gear and lobster being confiscated by DFO and RCMP for fishing without a license or fishing out of season, even when Indigenous peoples were just exercising their right to fish. It doesn’t matter what coast they’re on, or if they’re fishing in freshwater or the sea.
It’s because of this that many people have been calling what is happening systemic racism. RCMP and DFO have been able to arrest Indigenous people and confiscate their catch, but have yet to have charged anyone despite the attacks on Indigenous peoples and the destruction of their property and tools. If it was Indigenous peoples destroying non-Indigenous equipment many say that the punishment would be swift and decisive.