N.S. Mi'kmaq chiefs call on Ottawa to denounce racism in lobster dispute; federal ministers respond
Published Monday, September 21, 2020 10:37AM ADT Last Updated Monday, September 21, 2020 11:17PM ADT
HALIFAX -- Indigenous chiefs in Nova Scotia are calling on the federal government to denounce what they described as racism and violence directed towards the Mi'kmaq people following a weekend of tension in St. Marys Bay.
Nova Scotia Mi'kmaq chiefs met with Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan and with Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett Monday morning, a day after a flotilla of non-Indigenous fishermen removed about 350 lobster traps off the coast of southwestern Nova Scotia.
"Non-Indigenous fishers and citizens are putting the safety of our people at risk," Chief Terrance Paul said in a statement following the meeting.
The federal government and the RCMP, he said, "must address the harassment and illegal activities taken against our people and they must enforce and charge those who to are cutting and stealing our traps, shooting flares at our boats, and threatening the lives of our people."
The chiefs said they told the fisheries department the seized traps must be returned to Indigenous harvesters. Minister Jordan did not respond to a request for comment Monday.
Sipekne'katik First Nation say its people have a treaty right to fish at any time. Non-Indigenous fishermen say the First Nation is illegally fishing off-season.
A 1999 Supreme Court decision affirms the treaty rights of Mi'kmaq people to fish for a "moderate livelihood." Rhonda Knockwood, director of operations for Sipekne'katik First Nation, said the federal government needs to clearly define the treaty rights of the Mi'kmaq people to earn a living off fishing.
She said the tensions between the two groups is a culmination of years of frustration with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and its "deliberate dithering and underhanded tactics surrounding the negotiations to define a moderate livelihood and implementation of the treaties."
Knockwood said since the traps were taken Sunday, the First Nation's lobster harvest was too small to present to buyers. "It's not even worth selling," she said in an interview Monday. "We're just consuming it as our food in ceremony now."
Colin Sproul, president of the Bay of Fundy Inshore Fishermen's Association, said the action taken Sunday by the non-Indigenous fishermen was necessary to remove the "illegal" traps. He said the lobster-fishing season in St. Marys Bay doesn't start until the last Monday of November every year.
Lobster fishing in the area is closed from May 31 until late November, Sproul explained in an interview Monday, to allow the crustaceans to safely mate during their reproductive period, as the lobsters' shells moult and soften during this time.
Sproul said Sunday's flotilla removed the gear unmolested under the watch of RCMP, coast guard boats and police helicopters.
"The gear that we were collecting was what was in violation of the law," Sproul said. "There's nothing more to show that fishermen have the true, just, lawful position here than the fact that we conducted that activity yesterday and nobody stopped us."
He said his association respects Indigenous treaty rights but it doesn't think it's appropriate to fish off-season in a nursery ground such as St. Marys Bay.
Paul, however, said Indigenous treaty rights exist alongside the rules set out by the federal government. "The public may not comprehend a fishery outside the realm of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, that does not make our fishery illegal."
"We called on Canada to help educate the public on the truth and to address the systemic racism that has been a major part in denying our ability to exercise our rights."
Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan and Indigenous-Crown Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett issued a joint statement late Monday night.
"We thank the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaw Chiefs for their leadership and for the open, respectful and constructive conversation today, where we affirmed what the Marshall Decision declared over 20 years ago – that Mi’kmaw have a constitutionally protected treaty right to fish in pursuit of a moderate livelihood," the two federal ministers say in the 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 ministers said that all federal agencies and staff will be coordinating their efforts to "respond to dangerous situations" as needed.
"Reconciliation is a Canadian imperative and we all have a role to play in it," the statement reads. "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. We want to work with First Nations leaders on the path forward of the implementation of their Treaty right, and look forward to upcoming conversations on this matter. This government is firmly committed to advancing reconciliation, respecting Indigenous treaties, and implementing First Nation rights, and we firmly believe that respectful, constructive dialogue is the way to achieve this. At this time we need communication, not confrontation."
On Monday, Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil said in a statement that the province recognizes the treaty rights of the Mi'kmaq First Nation but he admitted "many of the details surrounding the nature and extent of those rights are not clear."
Clarification, he said, "is best addressed through open and respectful dialogue."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 21, 2020.
With files from CTV Atlantic.