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  • Sadie Inglis

The War on Indigenous Fisheries

Nova Scotia Indigenous people have long-relied on lobster fishing for income. It is a part of their native practices, and is as deeply ingrained in their culture as it is for non-indigenous Nova Scotians. Throughout history, the government has continued to fail the natives in terms of upholding their rights, from failing to respect treaties, to ignoring obvious issues that are affecting them. Lately, however, there has been a particularly dark turn regarding Indigenous-run fisheries in Nova Scotia.

To start off with, let’s talk about the history of Indigenous fishing on the East Coast. The Mi’kmaq people have occupied the Atlantic provinces for at least 4 000 years, and there is evidence of their presence up to 10 000 years ago. Fishing has always been a huge part of their culture, with a lot of their practices and traditions based around it. Their right to do so was officially acknowledged in the Peace and Friendship Treaty of 1760, and is confirmed by the Canadian Constitution (section 35). The treaty was disputed over and over again throughout history by non-indigenous fishermen, and came to a head in the 1999 R. v Marshall case. Mi’kmaq fisherman, Don Marshall Junior, had set out to catch eels without a fishing license in the off-season in Cape Breton in 1993. He caught around 463 pounds of eels, made around $780, and was soon after arrested on charges of fishing without a license, fishing during the off-season, and selling eels without a license. The legal battle was intense and spanned over many years, crossing multiple courts and levels of government before eventually ending up at the Supreme Court of Canada. Finally, it came to a conclusion. The Supreme Court affirmed the treaty rights for Mi’kmaq fishers, stating that they were able to “fish for a moderate livelihood” wherever and whenever they want. This means that they were permitted to fish at any time, regardless of on/off-season, but they could only do so to make money in order to support themselves and their families to a moderate extent.

Fast forward to 2020. On September 17th, the 21st anniversary of the Marshall ruling, the Sipekne’katik First Nation launched a self-regulated lobster fishery: The Sipekne’katik Moderate Livelihood Fishery. The fishery was meant to be a reminder and celebration of the rights that they had been granted, and a way to put their livelihoods into their own hands. However, it has been met with a huge backlash from commercial and non-Indigenous fishermen. By September 18, the day after the launch, the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaw Chiefs had to declare a state of emergency for the Mi'kmaq people.

What started with mild complaints from non-Indigenous fishermen has quickly escalated into something larger and more dangerous. The commercial fishers have always been against the rights of Indigenous people regarding fishing in the off-season, but the opening of the Moderate Livelihood Fishery has appeared to push them over the edge. It began with protests; the day after the fishery opened, commercial fishermen gathered in boats, about 60-70 total, in dissent. They fired flares at Mi’kmaq vessels, cut trap lines, and stole/damaged thousands of dollars worth of equipment. Things continued to escalate over the next couple of weeks until a group of over 200 people attacked a lobster storage facility belonging to the Moderate Livelihood Fishery. They trapped Mi’kmaq fishers inside, threw rocks at the building, destroyed transportation equipment, including one of the vans, and left lobster strewn across the ground. Shortly after, the building was burnt down in a “suspicious” fire. On the same night, a facility in New Edinburgh was attacked. The facility belonged to a licensed buyer, who had recently agreed to sell lobster that had been caught by the Sipekne’katik First Nation. An assault was also launched on Chief Mike Sack, who is a Sipekne’katik chief involved in the fishery.

The commercial fishermen who have been organizing these attacks claim to have done so because the indigenous fishing practices are illegal and unethical. One fisherman stated that the lobsters need the off-season in order to reproduce and maintain population levels, and by fishing during this season, the Sipekne'katik are endangering the existence of the species. While this seems like a reasonable view at first glance, let's look at the facts:

  • The licenses issued by the Moderate Livelihood fishery allow for 50 traps each, with seven licenses available to make a total of 350 traps. This is compared to the 390 000 traps allowed by the commercial fishery in the area.

  • Professor Megan Bailey at Dalhousie University’s Marine Affairs program stated in an interview with Globe and Mail that, “the Sipekne'katik operation is too small to make much difference in terms of decreasing lobster populations”

  • Commercial fishers make 200 to 300 thousand dollars in a season while Mi’kmaw fishers generally make 30 thousand to 50 thousand

As you can see, the excuses that the fishermen are giving are shallow and not supported by the facts. If you disagree, take a second to think about what the public response would be if the roles were reversed: if an Indigenous group attacked commercial fisheries that had been permitted by the government to fish during the off-season and sabotaged their practice. If they locked fishermen in buildings, and burnt down their facilities. Could you imagine the outcry that would occur? The speed at which the government would step in to shut things down? The answers to these questions should be enough to tell you what the issue really is. It isn’t the endangerment of the lobster population, or taking money away from commercial fisheries, or breaking the law. Even if it was these things, violent attacks would not be the solution. The real issue here, the thing that is bothering these non-Indigenous Nova Scotians so much, is that Indigenous people are taking their livelihoods into their own hands. If we ever want things to change, we need to recognize these actions for what they are; the latest occurrence in Canada’s long history of seeking control over Indigenous groups and their cultural practices.

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