Since September, non-Indigenous lobster fishers in Southwestern Nova Scotia have been harassing and threatening Mi’kmaq fishers of the Sipekne’katik First Nation, who say they are exerting their 1752 treaty rights to fish for a “moderate livelihood”.
1999 Supreme Court decision disputed by both sides
These rights were affirmed in 1999 during a Supreme Court decision that cited that these fishery treaties are still legally applicable today. However, the non-Indigenous fishers argue that the Indigenous fishers should not be allowed as they are doing so outside of the federally regulated lobster season, which begins in November. They state that doing so threatens their livelihood by depleting lobster stock.
They also mention that they cannot fish as the 1999 Supreme Court decision stipulated four months after the original ruling that the treaty rights were still subject to “justifiable federal regulation” to maintain conservation of resources. Though these fishers were licensed by their band, who provided 11 licenses total, they are not licensed through the federal government.
Buildings and lobster destroyed in incidents on Tuesday
The ongoing tensions finally came to a head on October 13, when approximately 200 non-Indigenous fishers destroyed a lobster haul in New Edinburgh that had been purchased by a licensed lobster buyer.
Another incident was reported several hours later at a facility about 100 km away in Middle West Pubnico. One of the Mi’kmaq fishers, Jason Marr, said that he and a fellow fisher were trapped while the Middle West Pubnico site was being trashed. It was confirmed by police that fishers at both sites were prevented from leaving the facilities by the mobs.
Marr also stated that their van was set on fire, rocks were thrown at the building, and that the mob threatened to burn the building down. Over 3,400 pounds of lobster were damaged as a result.
Another fisher had their fishing boat burned a week prior, though the cause has not officially been identified.
Acts condemned by government, Indigenous community
Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde made a statement on October 14, calling on the RCMP, the federal government, and the provincial government to take action to avoid any harm. He stated that this hasn’t been a commercial disagreement, but an issue of systemic racism. Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil called on the federal Fisheries minister to call a meeting of all involved parties to bring about a solution.
Chief Mike Sack of the Sipekne’katik First Nation made a statement on October 15, asking Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to intervene to stop these interferences and attacks. He condemned the RCMP for not taking more action on “these terrorist, hate-crime acts”. He also stated that his council will be taking legal action against those who are interfering with their people’s fishery. He says that the fishery will continue despite the damage to their equipment and the intimidation they are receiving.
On October 16, Senators from Nova Scotia issued a news release condemning what they call “vigilantism and blatant racism”. They also called on the RCMP to restore order, and for those involved to let current discussions proceed so that further harm can be avoided.
RCMP criticized for lack of action
The RCMP stated that they increased police presence in the Digby County area after the violence that ensued on Tuesday and that they are investigating both incidents. They claimed that they tried to de-escalate the situations, but that “events escalated”. As of Thursday, no arrests have been made.
According to eyewitnesses of the Tuesday event, police officers took up to two hours to respond to the incidents, and that they “just stood there” while the violence and damage ensued at both locations.
Indigenous right to fish supported by Fisheries minister, citizens country-wide
Trudeau and the Federal Fisheries and Oceans minister Bernadette Jordan condemned the incidents, stating that the Indigenous fishery does not cause a conservation issue and that the First Nation peoples have a right to fish due to their treaty rights.
The Fundy Inshore Fishermen’s Association (which represents non-Indigenous fishers), First Nation fishers, Premier McNeil and opposition parties have criticized the Fisheries and Oceans department for not working sooner to mediate this issue and failing to properly define the term “moderate livelihood”. Jordan stated that she is in talks with both the Sipekne’katik First Nation and the non-Indigenous fishers.
Fire set to lobster facility
On October 17, tensions escalated further when a lobster facility in Middle West Pubnico, the same one where the van was set ablaze on Tuesday, was set on fire during the night.
The RCMP released a statement on Saturday saying that the fire is considered suspicious, and a man is in hospital with life-threatening injuries. Eight fire departments responded to the blaze, but the building was completely destroyed.
In a statement the same day by Chief Sack, the facility was owned by an “ally and friend” of the Sipekne’katik First Nation, and that this fire could have been avoided if there had been adequate police presence in the area after the events of Tuesday.
Chief Perry Bellegarde made a tweet the same day, stating that his office has reached out to both the government and the RCMP to express his concerns and to demand a “full and thorough investigation by the proper authorities”.
Parts of these incidents were streamed online and are causing an uproar country-wide, with support from coast to coast. Demonstrations have been held in support of the fishers, and funds are being raised to help cover the costs of repairing and replacing the damaged boats and fishing equipment.