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Federal fisheries minister calls for review of arrest, treatment of Mi'kmaq fishers

Nova Scotia's provincial flag flies on a flag pole in Ottawa on July 3, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld Nova Scotia's provincial flag flies on a flag pole in Ottawa on July 3, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
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OTTAWA -

The federal Fisheries Department has called an external review into the conduct of its officers who allegedly arrested and dropped off two Indigenous men at a Nova Scotia gas station without shoes or phones.

The two Mi'kmaq fishers from Cape Breton were arrested near Shelburne, N.S., in the late evening of March 26, and the pair have said they had to walk for about six hours before they could get help.

Fisheries Minister Diane Lebouthillier said Monday in a news release that the allegations are "unacceptable." The minister said she had the opportunity on May 31 to "meet with and, most importantly, listen to the poignant testimony of one of the two individuals involved in the incident.

"I am committed to shedding light on this matter. We must work together to eradicate systemic racism, wherever it exists," she said.

Kevin Hartling, who is from Membertou First Nation, and Blaise Sylliboy, from Eskasoni First Nation, told The Canadian Press in early April that at around 1 a.m. on March 27, they were left at a gas station far from home without footwear or cellphones and ended up walking until they were able to use a borrowed phone to get through to a friend, who picked them up.

The two men were arrested as they fished for baby eels, known as elvers.

Ottawa closed the elver fishery on March 11 after violence and intimidation plagued the fishery last year in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. But many Mi'kmaq people maintain they have a treaty right to fish for the tiny eels.

Neither Hartling nor Sylliboy could be reached on Monday for comment.

Lebouthillier said in the news release that the external review of the officers' conduct will examine the Fisheries Department policies and practices, adding that the panel will be announced later this month and will involve Indigenous leadership. A report with recommendations will be made public once the review is complete, she added.

Commercial licence holder Brian Giroux of Shelburne Elver group said in an interview on Monday that the scope of the minister's public review is far too narrow and appears to begin with an assumption that racism was likely a factor in the incident.

Commercial elver fishers, he said, would like to have a public review into why there wasn't a better regime of enforcing the closure of the fishery and ending illegal fishing -- a problem he says has been evident for years.

"I think the public inquiry should be about this government's implementation of this (Indigenous fishery) situation," he said.

"I'm sorry, but the fishery was closed. Those of us that are legally allowed to fish were unemployed. We were thrown out," he said.

"So, trying to blame fishery officers? The morale in that department is incredibly low right now because of situations like this."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 8, 2024.

For more Nova Scotia news visit our dedicated provincial page.

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