All Eyes on Mi'kma'ki
Updated: Nov 22, 2020
By: Arwen Low
Photos by Arwen Low
This November 1st, hundreds of people gathered in Tio’tià:ke to march for the rights of Mi’kmaq fishers in southwestern Nova Scotia as part of the All Eyes on Mi’kma’ki movement.
September 17th, October 1st, and November 4th of 2020 are the opening dates of three First Nation fisheries in Nova Scotia: the Sipekne’katik, Potlotek, and Pictou First Nation fisheries, respectively. This rapid succession of openings has been long in the making– 21 years ago, on September 17th 1999, the Supreme Court ruled Mi’kmaq were allowed to fish, hunt, and gather in pursuit of a “moderate livelihood.” These rights were originally promised to the Mi’kmaq people in the 1752 Peace and Friendship treaty, but commercial fishermen have since pushed against them.
Complex tensions between Mi’kmaq and commercial fishermen are explained in two parts. First, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans has yet to define a “moderate livelihood.” As expressed by Sipekne’katik Chief Mike Sacks, “the average Nova Scotia income should be at least the starting point.” Discussions between DFO and Sipekne'katik officials left parties unable to find common ground over the definition of a “moderate livelihood” in September. Gord Macdonald, president of the Richmond County Inshore Fishermen’s Association, wanted Potlotek people to remove their traps until the term was clearly defined. Mi’kmaq First Nations have waited for clarity on this definition for 21 years, and Potlotek Chief Wilbert Marshall comments that First Nations “have the right to self-govern our fisheries, separate from commercial fisheries.”
Moreover, commercial fishermen maintain that Mi’kmaq fishermen should abide by the same rules they do, which includes respect for the commercial fishing season. Commercial fishermen claim Mi’kmaq fishermen will harm lobster stocks by fishing off season, when lobsters may molt. However, lobster season is notoriously ill-defined: different types of lobsters will molt at different periods and frequencies, some molting as infrequently as every two years. Chief Sacks says that concerns about out of season fishing “are all just grasping at straws.” He does however see conservation as a valid concern, and affirms that the Sipekne’katik Nation committed to taking under five percent of the lobster in the region.
A professor in Marine Affairs at Dalhousie University, Megan Bailey, states that there is no science supporting claims that current Mi’kmaq fishing operations harm lobster stocks, and maintains that their traps would have “a negligible impact.” Aaron MacNeil, the Canada Research Chair in Fisheries Ecology, echoes this sentiment.
It is also important to note that the commercial giant Clearwater Seafoods has DFO approval to fish year-round. They secured $4.7 million worth of government loans from 2014-2018, and refused to release research reports on their ecological impact. It was revealed in January 2019 that they'd been leaving their traps in the water for illegal amounts of time, something scientifically proven to harm lobster stocks.
Protestors walked not only in support of the Mi'kmaq First Nations’ right to fish, but also to condemn the reaction of non-Indigenous fishermen to the opening of the Sipekne’katik fishery. Fishermen allegedly circled Mi’kmaw boats, reportedly intimidating them by threatening to destroy equipment. Two facilities used by Mi’kmaq fishermen to store catches were raided by commercial fishermen in October, damaging facilities and killing hundreds of lobsters. Another incident involved Jason Marr, a Sipekne’katik fisherman, who was barricaded in a facility as 1500 kg of lobster, along with his van, were destroyed by a mob. Chief Sack was also assaulted, pushing him to declare that the Sipekne’katik would refrain from fishing in the next lobster season due to safety concerns.
Non-indigenous fishermen and their supporters shouted racial slurs towards Mi’kmaq fishermen with an audience of tens of thousands. Social media has given this situation widespread attention. The inaction of the DFO and RCMP has been widely criticized, leading to protests such as the aforementioned march in Tio’tia:ke. President of the Bay of Fundy Inshore Fishermen’s Association, Colin Sproul, says he and Chief Sack “have agreed that [their] issues are not Indigenous versus non-Indigenous.” He instead cites “the minister and her lack of action” as the problem.
November 9th saw a coalition of Mi’kmaq First Nations purchasing $1B worth of shares in Clearwater Seafoods, rendering them primary shareholders of the biggest seafood company in the Canadian Atlantic. While the future of Clearwater Seafood remains unknown, one can assume that there may be a turn within the company towards conservation, something which Mi’kmaq First Nations fight for. However, Chief Terry Paul of the Membertou First Nations says that they are “still very incredibly committed to our other fisheries and to our communities on moderate livelihood,” emphasizing that the deal will not impact discussions made in other areas of the fishery.