The Assembly of Nova Scotia Chiefs met with federal ministers Monday morning to talk about the conflict surrounding the Mi’kmaw fishery.
The chiefs want Fisheries and Oceans Minister Bernadette Jordan and Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett to speak out against racism and violent confrontations toward the Mi’kmaq.
“Non-Indigenous fishers and citizens are putting the safety of our people at risk. DFO and the RCMP must address the harassment and illegal activities taken against our people,” said Chief Terry Paul, ” 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 Sipekne’katik First Nation kicked off its moderate livelihood fishery last Thursday in Saulnierville, three hours west of Halifax.
But confrontations on and off the water marred what the Mi’kmaw called a historic weekend for treaty rights.
Dozens of non-Indigenous fishermen kept a constant presence in St. Mary’s Bay; at times, off in the distance, other times coming to surround Mi’kmaw lobster boats, cutting their lines and hauling up Mi’kmaw traps as soon as they were dropped.
On Sunday afternoon, commercial fishing boats with Acadian flags came dangerously close to the Mi’kmaw lobster boats.
The Mi’kmaq were quick to respond in a game of cat and mouse.
Mi’kmaw Fishery guardians arrived on a zodiac and tried to retrieve the Mi’kmaw traps off the commercial fishing boat.
They were able to grab a couple of traps. The commercial fishermen pulled back on the ropes, but eventually let go.
Mi’kmaw Capt. Terrance Augustine was there.
“We were just out there to check our livelihood traps and all we seen was a fleet of non-native fishermen coming towards us,” he told APTN News. “And then they started pulling our gear and just cutting our traps up and taking off with them and it was just hectic out there right now.”
And neither side is backing down.
Last week, the Sipekne’katik First Nation handed out licenses to harvest lobster with a plan to manage their own fishery.
The band has seven licenses, but only three of them are being fished right now, with 50 traps per boat.
“We’re not looking for access,” said Chief Mike Sack. “We already have access.”
In 1999, the Supreme Court of Canada upheld the Mi’kmaq right to fish and sell their catch to earn a moderate livelihood.
But the term, moderate livelihood, has never been defined and the issue has caused rising tension for the better part of two decades.
“Our Rights were affirmed in the Canadian Constitution and the right to fish for a moderate livelihood
was reaffirmed by the Supreme Court of Canada,” said Paul. “While 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.”
Sipekne’katik band member Cheryl Maloney says each boat lost about $5,000 worth of traps due to vandalism by non-Indigenous fishers over the weekend.
“It’s a privilege for them to fish, and that should be revoked if they are going to break the law,” Maloney said. “And if there isn’t a law that says leave Aboriginal traps alone, there should be a law that says leave Aboriginal traps alone.”
Fundraising has started to allow the Mi’kmaw fishers to buy more traps.
In its press release, the Nova Scotia chiefs said they informed DFO, “…where this is not an illegal fishery, that they must return traps seized from our harvesters exercising their rights in the past.”
Over the weekend, hundreds of people from all over Mi’kma’ki came to the wharf in Saulnierville to show their support.
On Saturday, Mi’kmaw fishers hauled up some lobster traps, even though the buoy lines had been cut, marking the first official catch of their moderate livelihood fishery.
Sipekne’katik plans to fish until the commercial fishing begins, in around two weeks.