Indigenous Leaders Say Commercial Fishermen Are Threatening Them Over Lobster
Indigenous communities in eastern Canada say they have had their lobster traps cut and stolen, been shot at by flare guns, and have been surrounded by non-Indigenous commercial fishermen—just because they are asserting their legal fishing rights.
Late Monday night, the Canadian government sided with them.
“Mi’kmaw have a constitutionally protected treaty right to fish in pursuit of a moderate livelihood,” a joint statement from the Fisheries ministry and Ministry of Crown-Indigenous Relations says.
“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.
The news is part of a decades-long conflict over who is allowed to fish and when. Commercial fishermen argue they have to follow conservation guidelines set by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans that say there are typically two lobster seasons per year. Indigenous fishermen were fishing during the offseason.
But the Mi’kmaq people are allowed to hunt, fish, and sell what they catch in order to earn a moderate livelihood under treaty—constitutionally recognized historic agreements between Indigenous nations and Canada’s monarchy. The right was upheld by Canada’s Supreme Court in 1999.
What constitutes “moderate livelihood” is yet to be clearly defined, so Sipekne’katik First Nation decided to take matters into its own hands. Last week, on the anniversary of the Supreme Court decision, the First Nation launched its own independent moderate livelihood fishery—a move that sparked backlash from commercial fishermen who say fishing during the offseason will harm lobster populations.
Indigenous lobster traps have been damaged and stolen, and commercial fishermen have intimidated Indigenous fishermen, even surrounding and shooting flares at them, Mi’kmaw leaders allege. Nova Scotia RCMP, Canada’s federal police, confirmed two people had been arrested in relation to an assault connected to the protests led by commercial fishermen.
On Friday, the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaw Chiefs declared a state of emergency that was extended on Tuesday until September 29 in response to the alleged violence. “Discussions with various levels of government have been moving forward in productive ways, but the safety of harvesters and supporters continues to be of most importance,” they said in a statement.
The state of emergency includes a command centre with an undisclosed, central location and support from leaders for harvesters and their families.
“The Assembly will be coordinating assistance and support across organizations and service providers in order to protect the safety and security of Mi’kmaq affected by this political unrest.”
On Sunday, things came to a head when commercial fishermen forcibly removed some 350 Mi’kmaw lobster traps, sanctioned by Sipekne’katik First Nation, off the coast of southwestern Nova Scotia.
Colin Sproul, president of the Bay of Fundy Inshore Fishermen’s Association, told CBC on Sunday that they had to assume “the minister’s responsibility” and remove Mi’kmaw fishing gear.
Sproul said he and other commercial fishermen have no intention to intimidate anyone and are “trying to do what’s morally and ecologically right here.”
“We’re just trying to define a moderate livelihood so our people can get out of poverty,” Sipekne’katik Chief Mike Sack told CBC. “The conservation issue is something that we take very seriously…We take less than 5 percent out of those areas in regards to stock of the lobster,” Sack said.
On Monday, a joint statement from federal fisheries minister, Bernadette Jordan, and the Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations, Carolyn Bennett, reaffirmed the 1999 Supreme Court decision.
The statement added that DFO fishery officers, Canadian Coast Guard vessels and personnel, the RCMP, and other public safety officials are coordinating their efforts to respond to dangerous situations.
“We are grateful that our sound reasoning was heard,” said Rhonda Knockwood, a Sipekne’katik spokesperson.
Nova Scotia is currently gearing up for hurricane Teddy, which is barrelling towards the province and is expected to hit later Tuesday. “Obviously, with the storm, our fishers will ensure safety of their boats, gear, and are bunkering down for the storm,” Knockwood said.
Two First Nations, Abegweit and Lennox Island, in Prince Edward Island are also considering launching their own self-regulating fisheries. And in nearby Cape Breton, Potlotek First Nation Chief Wilbert Marshall already sent a letter to fisheries minister, Bernadette Jordan, with his plans to launch an independent fishery on October 1. Marshall said his community is “tired of waiting and we’re tired of being poor.”
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