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Politics ᐊ ᓃᑳᓂᔅᑭᑭᓂᐧᐃᒡ ᐊᐱᑎᓰᐧᐃᓐ

Mi’kmaq in Nova Scotia assert their right to fish

BY Ben Powless Oct 9, 2020

Photo credit — Justice Grubmen

Exactly 21 years after a landmark Supreme Court of Canada ruling affirming the rights of the Mi’kmaq to hunt, fish and gather in pursuit of a “moderate livelihood,” the community of Sipekne’katik in Nova Scotia decided to test the limits of that right.

Over 200 people gathered in Saulnierville, Nova Scotia, September 17 as Sipekne’katik First Nation announced they would be launching their own “moderate livelihood” fishery outside of the commercial fishery regulated by the federal government. 

After a ceremony to bless the fleet, seven licenses were issued to community members, allowing them to set up to 50 traps each. The first fishing license was awarded to Randy Sack, the son of Donald Marshall Jr., who won the landmark Supreme Court ruling in 1999.

However, the news wasn’t well received by non-Indigenous commercial fishers, who set out on the water that day to attempt to blockade Mi’kmaw fishery crews and forcefully remove their traps from the water. 

That led the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaw Chiefs (ANSMC) to declare a state of emergency September 18, “in response to the violence occurring over Mi’kmaw fisheries across the province,” the official announcement said. 

In response, federal Fisheries and Oceans Minister Bernadette Jordan issued a statement urging peaceful protests and to “lower tensions on the water and in our communities.” 

Jordan said she was inviting Indigenous leaders and industry leaders to meet and try to find a peaceful resolution. 

While the launch of the fishery was a surprise to other commercial fishers, it comes after decades of failed negotiations between Mi’kmaw chiefs and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) to define what constitutes a “moderate livelihood”.

“We have been trying to negotiate a long-term plan with DFO for years,” Chief Terrance Paul, Fisheries Lead for the ANSMC, said in a statement. “Through consultation, we hope to find a path forward immediately. Our communities are going fishing and we want to ensure that they don’t have to be fearful of being harassed or charged.”

The First Nation-led fishery came out of years of community consultation, according to Sipekne’katik Chief Michael Sack. 

“It’s been worked on for a number of years, and we decided to move forward with the community. We had community consultations, we had fisheries teams go door to door, and this is what was decided upon,” Sack said. 

Along with the licenses, the Mi’kmaw harvesters will receive a copy of the community’s Rights Implementation and Fishery Management Plan, a document which lays out policies on things like harvesting, sales and trap sizes, similar to the existing DFO guidelines for commercial fisheries. 

Non-Indigenous commercial fishers said that they were removing the traps out of concern for ecological damage to the fishery. 

“Unless there is one set of rules driven by the conservation of the fishery, Canada’s fishery will be destroyed,” said Bernie Berry, President of the Coldwater Lobster Association. 

Chief Sack said it was the first he’s heard some of these concerns being raised. He called it “saddening” that non-Indigenous fishers were attempting to seize community members’ property. “Our people scrape together the fishing gear, then they came and took it all away, it’s very unfortunate,” he said.

“Conservation and preservation is our concern, and we’re monitoring our people very closely,” he continued. “We only have a few boats down here, we’re fishing under 1% of what the commercial fishery is.”

His assurances were echoed by Megan Bailey, an associate professor who studies fisheries management at Dalhousie University. She told the CBC that the hundreds of traps proposed by the First Nation pale to the hundreds of thousands of traps set every year in the commercial fishery. 

A joint statement on behalf of Minister Jordan and federal Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett urged locals not to take the law into their own hands. “Reconciliation is a Canadian imperative and we all have a role to play in it. What is occurring does not advance this goal, nor does it support the implementation of First Nation Treaty rights, or a productive and orderly fishery.”

Sack said that he has spoken to representatives of the federal government, and that negotiations are ongoing. Meanwhile, tensions have settled a bit after tropical storm Teddy passed over the region. 

According to Sack, Sipekne’katik isn’t the only community planning on implementing their own fishery and issuing their own licenses. He said another community has plans to launch their fishery on Treaty Day, October 1. 

Chief Wilbert Marshall of Potlotek First Nation said his community has also developed a Livelihood Plan. The community has requested meetings with the DFO to discuss their fishery management plan. 

Chief Paul said that one of the main challenges to asserting a right to fish was the public’s lack of understanding on Indigenous rights. 

“While the public may not comprehend a fishery outside the realm of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, that does not make our fishery illegal. We called on Canada to help educate the public on the truth and to address the systemic racism that has been a major part in denying our ability to exercise our rights,” he said. 

A rally in support of Sikepkne’katik was held September 26 in Halifax, with hundreds of people showing up in support of the community. 

Sack said he is buoyed by the support. “We’ve had letters from across the country, donations, emails. It’s been overwhelming and we’re appreciative of that – it feels like we can’t thank them enough.”

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Ben Powless is a Kanien'kehá:ka and Anishnabek writer and photographer, currently living in Ottawa. He has a degree in Human Rights, Indigenous and Environmental Studies from Carleton University.