Arrests made after N.S. protesters confront Indigenous fishermen over right to fish
WEYMOUTH, N.S. -- Two people face assault charges after being arrested Friday at a wharf in western Nova Scotia, where there were reports of ugly confrontations over a First Nation's commercial lobster fishing operation.
Some non-Indigenous fishermen say they believe the Indigenous business is illegal because the regular fishing season is now closed. But the Sipekne'katik First Nation says their people have a treaty right to fish at any time.
The Mounties said no one was injured at the wharf in Weymouth and the two suspects were escorted from the scene. They were later released from custody and are expected to appear in court at a later date.
Images shared on social media show what appeared to be scores of fishermen gathered near the wharf.
RCMP in Meteghan said they responded to complaints about mischief and threats on Thursday after three Indigenous fishing crews sailed out of the harbour in nearby Saulnierville to set lobster traps in St. Marys Bay.
Some Indigenous fishermen alleged that ropes securing some of their lobster traps had been cut.
RCMP spokeswoman Cpl. Jennifer Clarke said the Mounties had a boat on the water and a helicopter overhead.
"We will remain in Saulnierville to ensure public and police safety, and to keep the peace," Clarke said in a statement released Friday. "The RCMP will take the actions necessary should there be any criminal activities."
A spokesman for the non-Indigenous fishermen did not respond to a request for comment.
Federal Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan appealed for everyone involved in the dispute to remain calm and invited Indigenous and industry leaders to meet with her as soon as possible.
"It is imperative that all parties -- and the public -- work together to lower tensions on the water and in our communities, to foster understanding between one another, because through understanding we will create the space for constructive, respective dialogue to happen," Jordan said in a release Friday.
"It is vitally important that we come together to find the best path forward to a peaceful resolution on the water."
Jordan noted that the issues surrounding this fishery are longstanding, complex and deeply personal to all involved.
She said the goal is to further implement First Nations' rights and have everyone participate in a constructive and productive fishery for the benefit of all communities in Nova Scotia.
Meanwhile, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Perry Bellegarde, issued a brief statement on Facebook, saying the Mi'kmaq in Nova Scotia are fighting for their treaty rights.
"Non-Indigenous fishers and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans are trying to suppress these rights," Bellegarde said, calling on the federal government to support those rights.
Later in the day, the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi'kmaw Chiefs declared a state of emergency because of the "political unrest" and violence. The assembly said a command centre will be established in an undisclosed location to support fishermen and their families.
"The Assembly will be co-ordinating assistance and support across organizations and service providers to protect the safety and security of Mi'kmaq effected by this political unrest," the group said in a statement.
The ceremony Thursday in Saulnierville was held exactly 21 years after the Supreme Court of Canada affirmed the right of Indigenous groups in Eastern Canada to hunt and fish for a moderate livelihood.
On Sept. 17, 1999, the court decided Donald Marshall Jr. had a treaty right to fish for eels when and where he wanted -- without a licence.
The Marshall decision also said the Mi'kmaq, Maliseet and Passamaquoddy bands in Eastern Canada could hunt, fish and gather to earn a "moderate livelihood."
However, the court followed up with a clarification two months later, saying the treaty right was subject to federal regulation.
Non-Indigenous fishermen in western Nova Scotia say that caveat is key to understanding why they oppose a self-regulated Indigenous lobster fishery that is not subject to federal regulations.
The chief of the Sipekne'katik First Nation, Michael Sack, has said his band has spent years drafting its lobster fishing management plan, which has its own set of conservation regulations.
Five Indigenous fishermen were granted band-sanctioned fishing licences on Thursday, with each one limited to using 50 traps.
The First Nation issued a statement Friday saying it has spent decades talking to various levels of government about how to define moderate living for Mi'kmaq people.
"We have shared Sipekne'katik's management plan with DFO following extensive community engagement on what a treaty-based fishery would entail," the statement said. "We aim to work with all levels of non-Indigenous governments and stakeholders to ensure our treaty and constitutional rights are upheld."
Nova Scotia's fisheries minister, Keith Colwell, has said the province will prosecute anyone who buys lobster caught out of season.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 18, 2020.
-- By Michael MacDonald in Halifax