Lobster catch destroyed, vehicle burned as tension rises over Indigenous fishery in N.S.
Published Wednesday, October 14, 2020 11:05AM ADT Last Updated Thursday, October 15, 2020 6:44AM ADT
HALIFAX -- A First Nations chief appealed Wednesday for calm and an increased police presence after an angry non-Indigenous crowd damaged two Nova Scotia lobster facilities that handle catches from Mi'kmaq fishers.
RCMP confirmed in a news release that about 200 people were present at two incidents Tuesday night outside lobster pounds in southwestern Nova Scotia, during which employees were prevented from leaving, rocks were thrown and a vehicle was set on fire.
Chief Mike Sack of Sipekne'katik First Nation told a news conference that a location damaged in New Edinburgh, N.S., belonged to a licensed lobster buyer who had agreed to sell the Indigenous catch harvested by the Sipekne'katik boats.
According to the chief, the people who came to the facility removed and damaged video cameras first and "ransacked the approved buyer's lobster pound and storage facility where the communal catch was to be housed."
Police were notified immediately, but the commercial fishers remained on the scene "to continue their intimidation tactics," the chief said of the incident in the coastal community, which is about 70 kilometres north of Yarmouth.
Sack said the fishery will continue, despite the tensions and intimidation. He is asking his people not to react to the incidents and to avoid violence. "I am asking people to take the high road," he said.
He wants to see a heavier police presence to protect his fishers. "Last night I was afraid somebody would die," he said. "Police aren't doing their job well at the moment."
RCMP say the incident in New Edinburgh in Digby County began at about 4 p.m. Tuesday, and five hours later they received calls about the second incident in Middle West Pubnico, which is more than 100 kilometres away from New Edinburgh.
Photos posted on Facebook also show lobster strewn about the Middle West Pubnico facility and a sign saying, "Chief Sacks management plan."
The RCMP said in the release they were advised that the large group was preventing people from leaving the lobster processing facility.
"Upon arrival, officers observed approximately 200 people in the area and worked to de-escalate the situation and disperse the group. Unfortunately events escalated," resulting in further damage, the police said. They said they are investigating complaints of threats and mischief.
Jason Marr, a fisher from Sipekne'katik, said he and another Indigenous lobster fisherman were trapped inside the Middle West Pubnico facility after he arrived to store his lobster.
"Somebody followed me to the place in Pubnico, and I wasn't there for three minutes before 200 guys showed up," he said in a telephone interview.
He said the non-Indigenous "mob" threw stones at the facility, broke windows and damaged his van, burning its interior. Marr said that when RCMP arrived, they wanted him to leave the building, but he declined and remained barricaded inside.
"They said, `If you don't come out we're going burn you out,' " he said of he crowd outside. "I watched them pour stuff in my gas tank and my van, slash the tires, cut wires, they pissed all inside of it."
Marr said he and the other fisherman from Sipekne'katik had all of their catch in the facility and did not want to leave it unprotected. He said he finally left at 2:30 a.m. on Wednesday, after all of the lobster he and the other fisherman had caught -- more than 3,400 pounds -- was damaged by the crowd.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau strongly condemned what happened.
"The acts of violence and intimidation committed in Digby County yesterday are unacceptable," he said in a post on Twitter Wednesday night.
"We cannot continue down this path. We must work together to advance reconciliation and implement First Nation treaty rights."
Federal Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan said she is appalled by the reported events and was particularly disturbed to hear reports of racist comments and actions made towards First Nations peoples.
"I strongly condemn the actions of every individual who destroyed property, committed violence, or uttered threats," she said on Facebook. "There is no place for this kind of violence or intimidation."
Jordan called on everyone involved to take a step back and bring calm and understanding to the situation.
"Progress cannot be made if individuals resort to violence."
The Indigenous fishers are conducting a fishery outside of the federally regulated season based on a 1999 Supreme Court of Canada decision that ruled East Coast Indigenous groups have the right to fish for a "moderate livelihood," though a second ruling stated this treaty right was subject to federal regulation.
Since the Mi'kmaq fishery opened last month, there have been tensions on and off the water, with traps hauled from the sea by non-Indigenous harvesters and a boat belonging to a Mi'kmaq fisherman burned at a wharf.
In a statement Wednesday, Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde said the RCMP, the federal government and the provincial government need to intervene before someone gets badly injured or killed.
"The actions of non-Indigenous fishers are meant to harass and intimidate the First Nations with whom they share the waters and the resources within them," he said in an emailed statement. "The First Nations should not be bullied off the water in this thuggish manner."
Sack said the latest incidents unfolded as he was meeting Tuesday with the 11 lobster harvesters his band has licensed for a moderate livelihood fishery in St. Marys Bay. Each of their boats uses about 50 traps in the inshore fishery, while commercial Indigenous and non-Indigenous fishers who operate beginning in late November use between 375 and 400 traps.
Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil told reporters Wednesday that he wants the federal fisheries minister to call a meeting of all parties to find a solution to the dispute. He says Ottawa has never properly defined moderate livelihood fishing since the 1999 Supreme Court ruling in the Donald Marshall Jr. case.
"I think it's incumbent on the national government and (the Fisheries Department) to quickly pull together a meeting that brings all sides together to find a solution that the courts told us 21 years ago we needed to find, and that has to happen soon," he said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 14, 2020.