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Voices ᐋ ᐄᔮᔨᐧᒫᓂᐧᐃᒡ

Shellfish, or selfish?

BY Dan Isaac Nov 19, 2020

To me, there’s nothing more Mi’kmaq than lobster. 

Unlike my parents, I grew up off reserve and only visited my home community of Listuguj in the summers. Doing so was a gift, and it’s something I’m trying to pass down to my own children now that I’m a father. 

As a rule, one of the first things to do on arrival is feast on lobster with the whole family at grandma’s house. It’s nothing fancy – just a newspaper to catch the juices and shells, a lot of melted butter, perhaps a cheap beer and of course a boiled bounty of everyone’s favourite crustacean. 

It’s tradition (minus the beer and butter, I suppose) that, even for the westernmost Mi’kmaq community, goes back millennia. 

For just over a month now, I’ve seen Sipekne’katik Mi’kmaq lobster fisherman bullied, threatened and assaulted for exercising their constitutional right to a moderate livelihood through their traditional resource – lobster. I’ve watched in horror as their lobster catch was destroyed by non-Indigenous commercial fisherman and lobster pounds and boats were torched by angry mobs.

“What’s happened in Nova Scotia has revealed the ugly side of the economic empowerment of Indigenous people,” said Ken Coates, a senior fellow in Indigenous rights and economic development with Ottawa’s MacDonald-Laurier Institute for public policy. “When people start getting new opportunity and somebody feels they’re losing, you get a pushback.” 

I would counter that what’s been happing has only illuminated the implicit economic factors in Canadian racism. 

In 1999, the Canadian Supreme Court affirmed the Mi’kmaq right to make a moderate livelihood through lobster fishing. But why is it that Mi’kmaq are only allowed to make a “moderate livelihood” while non-Indigenous people can get rich? 

Some good news, however, broke on November 9. Premium Brands along with group of seven Mi’kmaq bands have agreed to buy Clearwater Seafoods for $1 billion. The deal, to be finalized in early 2021, would make the Mi’kmaq 50% owners of North America’s largest producer of shellfish.  

While this is a hugely important development for the Mi’kmaq and Indigenous people in general, I question why it needed to happen in the first place to legitimize the Mi’kmaq as a player in what is, after all, their traditional resource. 

Over the past few decades, Indigenous people are slowly being granted access to the tremendous wealth that has been generated through resource extraction from Indigenous lands. The Cree know this very well and have become partners in a variety of industries in Eeyou Istchee. 

Resource extraction projects largely can’t move forward on Indigenous lands now without some level of consultation and consent. This usually results in an impact benefit agreement, but it acknowledges the simple truth, that the lands and their bounty not only belong to Canada and its provinces but the Indigenous nations as well.

Why then doesn’t this apply to the sea? 

Why can private entities access resources in our seas with near impunity? Why have we not been consulted or asked for permission to extract the millions of pounds of seafood from our waters every year? 

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Dan Isaac is a Mi'kmaq and Mohawk journalist with a BA in Creative writing from Concordia University. He’s been writing for the Nation since 2016.