Blockade season, also known as summer, is at our doorstep. First to set up camp may be the Mohawks protesting the Quebec government’s Bill 96, which they say will impose onerous French-language requirements.
Other First Nations are taking an interesting approach to the politics of protest.
Lennox Island First Nation is a Mi’kmaq community frustrated by federal foot stalling government over their treaty obligations dating back to the 1760s, when the British and the Mi’kmaq signed Peace and Friendship Treaties. They acknowledge the Mi’kmaq right to hunt and fish, and to trade or sell their catches.
Once honoured without a problem, in modern times Canada has cracked down on First Nations fishers. Most notably was Donald Marshall Jr., who was charged with eel fishing out of season. His case went all the way to the Supreme Court in 1999, winning a ruling that upheld the treaties. Months later, the Supreme Court amended the decision to say that the Mi’kmaq nations’ right to fish could be regulated by the federal government in the interest of conservation, and that Indigenous fishers were entitled to a “moderate livelihood” from the harvest. No one has ever said what a “moderate livelihood” actually is.
Since then, Lennox First Nation say the feds have dragged their heels in negotiations. They asked for 1,000 lobster traps but Ottawa only permitted them 300. So, the First Nation decided to go ahead to build a self-regulated treaty fishery. They aren’t the first ones to do so without Department of Fisheries authorization.
In 2020, we saw non-Native fishers destroy First Nations catches while the RCMP stood by. Lennox Chief Darlene Benard said, “I want the commercial fishers all across PEI to have a great season, but I want us to have that. That’s all, we just want the same.”
She may not get her wish as the DFO has said that it’s an unauthorized fishery. Enforcement of DFO regulations could mean trap seizures or fines. It should be an interesting time for the community.
At the other end of the country, the Piikani Nation in southern Alberta closed a canal gate that diverted water from the Old Man River. This left hundreds of area farmers without water. The Piikani move is in response to being shut out of talks over water usage. The First Nation wanted to be a part of the process, environmentally and economically. After five years they turned the water off to get the government’s attention.
Their tactic appears to have succeeded as Alberta and the Piikani have signed an agreement that reopened water flows to needy farmers and cattlemen. As University of Saskatchewan Public Policy Professor Ken Coates said, “When it’s a problem for our communities nothing happens but when it’s a problem for the non-Indigenous community it becomes a matter of crisis or urgency.”
While the Lennox First Nation may have to follow in Donald Marshall Jr.’s footsteps and go to court, many resource disputes have seen First Nations make gains. The Piikani First Nation found a way around this. Both are lessons in the continuing fight for Indigenous self-determination and a better life. And both First Nations are taking steps in a different direction from the Blockade Season path.