by Jake Cardinal, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
(ANNews) – In order to better understand the situation unfolding in Nova Scotia, it is important to historicize the decade’s long dispute between the Indigenous fishermen and the non-Indigenous fishermen.
In 1993, Mi’kmaq fisherman Donald Marshall Junior went fishing for eels off-season without a fishing licence. He sold 463 pounds of eels for $787.10. He was then arrested and charged with three offences: selling eels without a licence, fishing without a licence, and fishing during the closed season with illegal nets.
This accumulated in a years-long legal battle that went all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada, where it was affirmed that the Mi’kmaw had a right to fish whenever and wherever they wanted to, so long as it was for a “moderate livelihood.”
The words “moderate livelihood” are incredibly important here as the court ruling did not specify exactly what they mean. Some of the other language used in the ruling is also open-ended, such as the affirmation that the Mi’kmaw did not have a right to “open-ended accumulation of wealth,” but are instead only allowed to fish for “necessaries.” The language used in the ruling was taken directly from “peace and friendship treaties,” which were signed between 1760-1761.
The court determined that a “moderate livelihood” were basics, including “food, clothing and housing, supplemented by a few amenities” but not the accumulation of wealth. “It addresses day-to-day needs. This was the common intention in 1760,” the court said in its decision.
The ruling also concluded that the treaty rights were not unlimited and that there was a way that it could be regulated, but there has been no system set in the past two decades since.
Dwight Newman, a law professor at the University of Saskatchewan who specializes in Indigenous rights, say that the language was intentionally left open-ended in order to encourage a dialogue between the Mi’kmaw and the Government of Canada. “We can critique them after the fact for that, but I think they hoped for negotiation between the federal government and the First Nations to give further definition to that.”
What is happening in Nova Scotia today is a product of the rulings, or rather, the lack of dialogue and work done by the Government with the fishermen since then.
On October 17, in Middle West Pubnico, N.S., an enormous fire completely destroyed a lobster pound being used by Mi’kmaw fishermen – no one was inside the building at the time – which the RCMP have determined to by “suspicious” and have launched an on-going investigation. Unfortunately, that is just the most recent event regarding the fishing crisis.
Earlier that same week, on Tuesday, approximately 200 angry non-Indigenous fishermen barricaded Mi’kmaq fisherman inside the same lobster pound, ransacked it by destroying a Mi’kmaw fisherman’s vehicle and dumped more than 3,000 pounds of lobster into the ocean.
Mi’kmaw fisherman Jason Marr, who was on the inside of the building during the dispute, said “They vandalized (my van) and they were peeing on it, pouring things into the fuel tank, cutting electrical wires.
“I thought they were gonna kill me.”
Sipekne’katik First Nation Chief Mike Sack released a statement Saturday saying that the fire “illustrates the need for greater police presence in the region… I do believe with the proper police presence, however, this could have been avoided.”
“I am once again calling on Prime Minister Trudeau and the RCMP to dedicate the necessary resources to this region to protect everyone. I am extremely concerned that someone is going to hurt or worse,” Sack added.
Again, these are just a few things that happened, another event included between 150 and 200 lobster traps lost after non-Indigenous commercial fishers cut lines and destroyed buoys.
The RCMP were criticized for their lack of action regarding the terrorism perpetrated against not only the Mi’kmaw people, but to every Indigenous person across Canada, to which they responded by saying that the matter was not a policing issue, but a political one.
“Disputes related to fisheries laws are, regrettably, not new. But they’re also, at their core, not policing issues. They’re inherently political issues that we are calling on federal and provincial governments to address in partnership with Indigenous peoples and all affected parties,” said Brian Sauvé, president of The National Police Federation, which represents roughly 20,000 RCMP members.
The Federal Response
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said, “This is a situation that is extremely disconcerting. That’s why we’re calling for an end to the violence and harassment that’s happening. … I understand the concerns and the conflict going on right now but we need to find a solution.”
Chief Sack said if the federal government won’t negotiate with the Mi’kmaq to help define “moderate livelihood,” they’ll define it themselves. “The treaty’s between both of us,” he said. “They haven’t been upholding it like they should, so if they’re not capable of doing that, we’ll get it defined ourselves.”
Several Alberta First Nations are voicing their support and solidarity for the Mi’kmaw fishers, including Cold Lake First Nation, Alexis First Nation, AFN Alberta Regional Chief Marlene Poitras and others.
Driftpile Cree Nation released a statement displaying their support for the Mi’kmaw people, “Following weeks of escalating violence towards the Mi’kmaq peoples in Nova Scotia, it is telling that such actions have emanated largely from a complete lack of knowledge or awareness of Treaty with Indigenous peoples in Canada.
“In addition, the complete lack of action from the Federal Government, Prime Minister Trudeau, the RCMP and other levels of Canadian government sends dog whistles to certain individuals within our country that the violence and ignorance happening on Mi’kmaq territory is acceptable.
“Prime Minister Trudeau once remarked that a ‘Canadian, is a Canadian, is a Canadian.’ Indigenous peoples in Canada should, and must, be treated equally, and with respect.”
The Confederacy of Treaty 6 First Nations also released a statement in solidarity with the Mi’kmaw, “The Confederacy of Treaty Six First Nations Chiefs are sickened to see our relatives endure terroristic attacks on their own Traditional Territory, with little to no protection from the Canadian government. Indigenous Peoples across Turtle Island are disturbed and outraged at the lack of care, compassion, and support that this Canadian Government has offered to the Mi’kmaq people in the face of racism. It is shameful how this government, our Treaty partners, have allowed this type of behavior to carry on for as long as it has. Even after a direct plea to uphold the order of the law from Chief Sack, Prime Minister Trudeau, has managed to avoid that responsibility.
“The people of Treaty No. 6 will continue to pray for each of you, be assured that when the time comes and we are needed at your side, we will be there. Our people will ride the waters to your home fires and stand together with your people, peacefully, under the watch of our creator.”
Senator Murray Sinclair criticized the federal government and the RCMP for not keeping the peace between Mi’kmaw and non-Indigenous fishers. The federal government’s response has been “an abject failure,” he said.
“I’m disheartened by the fact that the government’s leadership — the leadership of this country — is not stepping up to the plate.”
“When it comes to the issue of the fishery itself, the Mi’kmaq people clearly have a right that is a higher right than the commercial fishers have, and the commercial fishers don’t recognize that,” said Sinclair. “The commercial fishers that are the ones who are attacking the Mi’kmaq in the exercise of their right are acting to protect their licensed position.”
Jake Cardinal is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter for Alberta Native News.