As Hurricane Teddy approached Nova Scotia Tuesday morning, Mi’kmaw fishermen tied up their boats and hunkered down at their campsite, prepared to wait out the storm.
The approaching Category 2 hurricane was a welcome distraction for Sipekne’katik First Nation after facing days of pushback from non-Indigenous, commercial fishermen against a new, self-regulated lobster fishery in Saulnierville, N.S, said Chief Michael Sack.
“We’re getting ready for the storm to pass. I think we’re taking this time to regroup and go back at it,” Sack told HuffPost Canada.
What’s now known as the lobster dispute has played out on the waters of Nova Scotia this past week, with fishermen on both sides, as well as politicians, demanding the federal government intervene.
The disagreement, however, isn’t just about lobsters, but also the treaty rights of Indigenous people who are striving to earn a living from hunting, gathering and fishing.
“It’s fishing, but it’s much more than that for us,” Sack said. “It’s stepping up and making sure that other levels of government respect our people.”
What’s been going on?
Last week, Sipekne’katik Mi’kmaq launched its fishery at a federal wharf, distributing seven licences to Mi’kmaw fishing boats for a total of 350 traps — less than a single commercial fishing vessel puts out, Sack said. There are 979 inshore lobster licences issued for that region of Nova Scotia.
The fishery is one way the Sipekne’katik community is hoping to combat poverty, by creating more jobs that pay a living wage in the lucrative lobster industry, said Sack.
Under their treaty rights, the Mi’kmaq are allowed to fish without restrictions in order to earn a “moderate livelihood,” based on a landmark 1999 Supreme Court ruling, he said.
But the launch of the fishery sparked fierce opposition from non-Indigenous fishermen, who claim it’s illegal to harvest lobster during the current off-season, citing concerns about sustainability.
After the ceremony, up to 50 non-Indigenous fishing boats encircled Mi’kmaw boats and reportedly shot emergency flares in their direction.
“There needs to be a full crackdown on illegal fishing and the sale of illegally harvested fish immediately,” said Martin Mallet, executive director of the Maritime Fishermen’s Union in a statement that called for the federal government’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) to intervene.
“More enforcement, bigger fines and more serious penalties need to be put on the table right now,” Mallet said, adding that fishermen were “peacefully” protesting the Indigenous lobster traps.
The RCMP arrested two people at the wharf on assault charges following ugly confrontations on Friday, as non-Indigenous fishers continued to monitor the mouth of the harbour.
On Sunday, the situation escalated as non-Indigenous fishermen on about 100 boats removed Mi’kmaq lobster traps off the western coast of the province.
“They’re trying to disconnect the Natives from any resources,” said Sack of the non-Indigenous fishermen. “They’re putting pressure on people who sell fuel, bait, gear. They’re threatening to boycott them if they do any business with us.”
The Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaw Chiefs described these actions as “harassment” and “racism” in a statement Monday. The assembly also enacted a state of emergency because of the “violence occurring over Mi’kmaq fisheries across the province.”
What’s the Supreme Court ruling about?
Twenty-one years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that the Mi’kmaq had the right to fish “in pursuit of a moderate livelihood” where and when they want without a licence. The Marshall Decision was rooted in the 1760s Peace and Friendship Treaties and is protected by the Canadian Constitution.
If the DFO wanted to regulate Mi’kmaq fishing, it would have to conduct meaningful consultations about any proposed limitations with the community, lawyer Bruce Wildsmith, a retired Dalhousie University law professor, told CBC Radio’s Jeff Douglas.
“Consultation would be central to any regulation,” said Wildsmith, who has represented Mi’kmaq in treaty cases, including in the Marshall Decision. “That consultation has never taken place.”
Both sides agree the federal government has dropped the ball by not defining what a “moderate livelihood” means or setting restrictions.
“Fishermen care about the future sustainability of the fishery and they expect DFO to step up and enforce the rules across the board,” says O’Neil Cloutier, director of Regroupement des pêcheurs professionnels du sud de la Gaspésie, representing inshore fishermen in Quebec, in a statement signed by fishermen associations across eastern Canada.
The Sipekne’katik First Nation said that after two decades of waiting for the DFO to recognize its treaty right to harvest and sell fish, and seeing little movement, it’s taking control.
“We trust the lobster industry and DFO to respect our processes, which are intended to be of mutual benefit and to resolve and bring certainty to a long-standing constitutional breach,” it said in a statement.
The Assembly of First Nations echoed these remarks.
“The alarming escalation is a direct result of inaction by Minister Bernadette Jordan and (the DFO),” said National Chief Perry Bellegarde in a statement.
“There must be no delay in ensuring and protecting the safety and security of First Nations fishers and their constitutional and treaty rights to fish.”
What’s the federal government doing now?
Jordan and Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Carolyn Bennett met with the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaw Chiefs on Monday, and affirmed the Marshall Decision “that Mi’kmaw have a constitutionally protected treaty right to fish in pursuit of a moderate livelihood,” they said in a joint statement.
“We share the concerns of the Assembly Chiefs for the safety of their people. There is no place for the threats, intimidation, or vandalism that we have witnessed in South West Nova Scotia. This is unacceptable.”
The Canadian Coast Guard, RCMP and public safety officials are patrolling the sea, land and air to respond to any dangerous situations.
“Reconciliation is a Canadian imperative and we all have a role to play in it,” the ministers’ statement said. “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.”
They said they are going to have future conversations with First Nations leaders about their treaty rights.
Sack was skeptical the federal government would follow through on its promise, or help them stand up to non-Indigenous fishermen.
“It was bagged,” the chief said. “Until they actually implement it, it’s kind of just lip service.”
Correction: This story has been updated with the correct use of the words “Mi’kmaq” and “Mi’kmaw.”