Peace on the Water report finds racism and neglect by the Canadian government
Indigenous fishers in eastern Canada, trying to exercise their treaty rights to fish and earn a living, have been met with constant opposition, racism, and even violence. These abuses became remarkably egregious in recent years when settler fishers began intimidating Indigenous fishers. Intimidation escalated into violence: in fall 2020, an Indigenous lobster pound was burnt to the ground, and one of their vans was lit on fire. In response, The Standing Senate Committee on Fisheries and Oceans released a report on the state of Indigenous rights-based fisheries. The report, Peace on the Water: Advancing the Full Implementation of Mi’kmaq, Wolastoqiyik and Peskotomuhkati Rights-Based Fisheries, was released in July.
The report found that the federal government of Canada has not honoured its treaties with the affected Indigenous fishers, which include 35 Mi’kmaq, Wolastoqiyik and Peskotomuhkati First Nations in New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia and the Gaspé region of Quebec. The report also found that the federal government has failed to enforce decisions made by the Supreme Court regarding the R v Marshall case of 1999. In summary, the settler-colonial government of Canada has failed, yet again, to deliver truth and reconciliation to Indigenous peoples.
In 1993, a Mi’kmaq man named Donald John Marshall Jr. was arrested, charged, and convicted for catching and selling eels. Marshall caught 463 pounds of eels and sold them for $787.10; that was his so-called crime. The conviction was appealed, and the case ended up in the Supreme Court of Canada. In 1999, the Supreme Court ruled that Marshall had a right to catch and sell eels in order to secure a “moderate livelihood.” This right to fish was guaranteed under the 1760 and 1761 treaties signed between the Mi’kmaq and Britain. With this precedent set, the 35 First Nations that were similarly affected were no longer subjected to those fishing regulations imposed on settler fishers – in theory.
The Peace on the Water report found that the federal government has yet to implement and protect the treaty rights of Indigenous fishers. Instead, the report relates witness testimony about “systemic racism within Government of Canada departments, policies, and regulations.” Senator Dan Christmas, one of the senators on the committee, stated at a press conference that “witnesses said authorities had been harassing Indigenous fishers for years: seizing their gear, making arrests, and effectively criminalizing them for exercising their long-held and Supreme Court affirmed treaty rights.” Witnesses also stated that the federal government clearly prioritizes privilege-based fisheries over rights-based fisheries. In other words, the government has an obvious bias for settler fishers and commercial fisheries over Indigenous ones.
In addition to systemic racism, Indigenous fishers also fear for their safety while they exercise their right to fishing. In fall 2020, Sipekne’katik fishers were subjected to violent protests by settler fishers: fishing traps were sabotaged, a lobster pound was burnt to the ground, and one of the fisher’s vans was lit on fire. RCMP officers looked on as the violence transpired. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans knew that violence was imminent, but they also did nothing to stop it.
The Peace on the Water report emphatically states that this intimidation and violence is unacceptable. But the violence is the culmination of decades of neglect and incompetence on the part of the Canadian government. The report includes 10 recommendations that the federal government can implement to begin rectifying historical and ongoing injustices.
For example, Recommendation 4 demands that “all federal government departments and agencies immediately take effective actions to address and eliminate institutional and systemic racism in their laws, regulations, policies, and practices.”
Recommendation 5 demands that the Canadian government, and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans in particular, “respect and truly integrate Indigenous
laws, principles and knowledge with other scientific information and data into
fisheries decision-making processes.”
Importantly, Recommendation 7 demands that Indigenous people must have full control over negotiating the implementation of their treaty-based fishing rights. Here is the recommendation in full: “The committee recommends that the responsibility for negotiating the full implementation of rights-based fisheries be transferred from Fisheries and Oceans Canada to Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada. As such, Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada would become the lead negotiating department and Fisheries and Oceans Canada would assume an advisory role. The committee further requests that this change be made immediately and no later than one year after the tabling of this report.”
These recommendations, at the very least, show the Canadian government’s attempt to approach this serious issue in good faith. However, the report is in effect the Canadian government investigating itself. It is for Indigenous people alone to decide whether these recommendations are adequate, and whether their implementation is successful or not.
But some disagree. The Unified Fisheries Conservation Alliance (UFCA) released a statement shortly after the report was made public. In it, the UFCA expresses its “grave dissatisfaction and frustration” with the report. Colin Sproul, President of the UFCA, stated that the report is “incredibly biased” and that it “appears to have been written without substantial engagement from those closest to the fishing industry.” The UFCA characterizes the recommendations in the report as akin to advocating “expropriation” and that it will only bring about ineffective, “chaotic change.” Nevertheless, the UFCA mentions in passing that its goal is to “have Indigenous and non-indigenous [sic] fishing side by side again.”The Peace on the Water report affirms what Indigenous peoples have been saying all along. The behemoth that is settler-colonialism remains alive and well. White supremacy remains an unbroken thread throughout the history of Canada. The rot of racism is so deep and pervasive in Canada’s history that Indigenous people must still fight to have their rights recognized and respected. Some settlers still intimidate and terrorize Indigenous people for exercising their rights. The Canadian government can expand on this show of good faith by simply honouring the agreements they made with Indigenous peoples. Otherwise, peace on the water will never be possible.