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JIM VIBERT: Violence against Mi'kmaq 'disgusting,' 'racist'

Stacks of herring can be seen in the ruins of a lobster pound and cold storage facility, that was destroyed by fire in Middle West Pubnico, NS early Saturday October 17, 2020.

TIM KROCHAK PHOTO
Piles of herring can be seen in the ruins of a lobster pound and cold storage facility that was destroyed by fire in Middle West Pubnico, N.S. early Saturday, Oct. 17, 2020. - Tim Krochak TIM KROCHAK PHOTO - Tim Krochak

Better late than too late, the province asked and Ottawa responded by sending more Mounties to southwestern Nova Scotia in an effort to quell the growing violence against the Mi'kmaq who are exercising their right to fish.

Monday, Federal Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller termed that violence disgusting, unacceptable and racist in nature and he called out the RCMP for its failure to protect the Mi'kmaq from the white commercial fishermen who are intent on disrupting or destroying the Indigenous lobster fishery underway in St. Mary's Bay.

The violence, we are assured, has been perpetrated by a minority of commercial fishermen. If that's the case, the majority seem unable or unwilling to bring their hot-headed associates in line. Indeed, there have been reports of harassment and intimidation directed against those commercial fishermen who are seeking a peaceful solution.

Tensions in the area have been growing since the Mi'kmaq fishery started in mid-september. Initially, the Mi'kmaq fishers — from the Sipekne'katik First Nation — had their gear vandalized and faced intimidation on the water and the wharves.

The Mi'kmaq endured weeks of threats, harassment, vandalism and racist taunts before the province asked and the feds sent the additional cops.

Those problems continue, but the danger has also escalated to physical confrontations, including an assault on Sipekne'katik First Nation Chief Mike Sack, blockades to stop the movement of lobster caught by Indigenous fishers and, last weekend, a fish plant willing to accept the Indigenous catch burned to the ground, apparently the result of arson.

Outmanned by large crowds of commercial fishers and their supporters, the Mounties seemed to mostly observe the confrontations, but with the risk to life and limb increasing daily, Nova Scotia's Attorney General Mark Furey last week asked federal Public Safety Minister Bill Blair for more Mounties, and Blair said Monday the additional police have been provided.

The Mi'kmaq endured weeks of threats, harassment, vandalism and racist taunts before the province asked and the feds sent the additional cops. That there has been no loss of life is a reflection of good luck, and certainly not good governance.

Meanwhile, federal Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan surfaced Monday from within her 14-days of isolation — she is observing Nova Scotia's COVID-19 protocols — to plead for “space, time and trust.”

Those elements, she said, are essential to the successful conclusion of nation-tonation discussions between Canada and the Mi'kmaq that could define the scope of the Indigenous lobster fishery.

In her plea for “space, time and trust,” Jordan said the issues at play are both complex and longstanding, which raises the question of why the Liberal government hasn't adequately addressed them before the danger to Indigenous fishers became life-threatening.

More than 20 years ago, the Supreme Court of Canada affirmed that the Mi'kmaq have a treaty right — dating back more than 250 years — to fish for a moderate livelihood, and that's what they are doing right now in St. Mary's Bay.

The Mi'kmaq are operating 11 vessels and setting a total of about 550 traps. By contrast, according to the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans, there are more than 900 commercial lobster licences in the area and each licence permits between 350 and 400 traps.

And yet, the commercial fishermen are claiming their opposition to the Indigenous fishery is based on a concern for conservation of the stocks.

In her plea for “space, time and trust” Jordan said the issues at play are both complex and longstanding, which raises the question of why the Liberal government hasn't adequately addressed them before the danger to Indigenous fishers became life-threatening.

For its part, the provincial government has responsibility to protect life, limb and property — a responsibility it observed in the breach until it reached out to Ottawa for more police last week.

Premier Stephen McNeil was content to point the finger at Ottawa for not arriving at a definition of moderate livelihood, which he and others believe holds the key to a lasting solution to the dispute.

That remains to be seen, because what lies at the heart of this battle is access to one of the world's most lucrative fisheries, which the commercial fishery has had pretty much to itself and seems unwilling to share — even a sliver — with the Mi'kmaq.

The commercial fishers have a couple of centuries of colonialism on their side. But the Mi'kmaq have treaty rights dating back as far, plus the law as determined by the Supreme Court of Canada in 1999.

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