A work van was set on fire and a catch of lobster was destroyed when a crowd of commercial fishermen vandalized two fishing compounds in southwestern Nova Scotia on Tuesday.
The incidents, the latest in continuing tensions between Indigenous and non-Indigenous fishers in Nova Scotia, allegedly occurred at two locations, one in Central West Pubnico, N.S., and the other in New Edinburgh, N.S.
One of the most heated exchanges saw multiple people trapped inside a facility in Central West Pubnico, N.S.
Jason Marr, a fisherman with Sipekne’katik First Nation was one of the people stuck inside that lobster pound as a large crowd of non-indigenous fishermen, estimated to be as many as 200 people by RCMP, gathered outside.
Marr said he travelled to the facility in Central West Pubnico after he was told that commercial fishermen were going to attempt to seize the lobster caught by Mi’kmaw lobster fishermen like himself.
“Well, I said you’re not taking those lobsters. Me and my daughters fished those all week,” Marr told Global News in a phone interview on Wednesday from Digby.
So Marr loaded up about 5,000 pounds of lobster into his van and transported them to a lobster pound in West Pubnico owned by his friend.
“By the time we got the last crate into the lobster pound, I noticed there’s five trucks out there, there’s 20, there’s 50, then 70. Oh my Jesus there’s 200 people up there,” said Marr.
Very quickly the situation escalated as Marr’s vehicle was vandalized and the people inside the lobster pound were forced to barricade the door.
Marr says the non-Indigenous men threatened to “burn” his group out of the building if they didn’t leave and allow them seize the lobster.
“I thought they were gonna kill me,” the Mi’kmaw fisherman said.
Despite calling 911 multiple times, Marr say the RCMP took two hours to arrive.
Nearly “every single window” at the lobster pound was smashed in as men attempted to gain access to the building. Marr says the RCMP stood there and watched the vandalism of his vehicle and the building he was inside.
It was only a few hours later that RCMP came and talked to him.
“They told us that the only way that this was gonna come to any kind of end was if I hand over my lobsters to them,” he said.
Marr refused and the RCMP left for a short time before eventually coming back.
“That’s when they came in and told me ‘that there is over 120 of them out here. There’s nothing we can do to protect you. All we can do is get you out of here and leave. We can’t protect you,'” he said.
Marr still refused, wanting to save his catch.
But he eventually relented. Leaving the facility with some family and friends who’d shown up to support him.
“They destroyed all my lobsters and poured solvents all over them,” he said, estimating the catch was probably worth $40,000.
Second lobster facility vandalized
Chief Michael Sack of Sipekne’katik First Nation alleges the facility in New Edinburgh was “swarmed and vandalized” by commercial fishermen on Tuesday afternoon.
Sack claimed the crowd of commercial fishers, estimated to be approximately 200 people by RCMP, removed and damaged video cameras at the facility and ransacked the lobster pound and storage facility where the lobster catch was to be housed.
At one point a van was lit on fire. Video taken at the scene and posted on Facebook show RCMP officers rushing to put it out.
The incidents occurred after a protest by the commercial fishers in nearby Digby, N.S.
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“This act of vigilantism now affects Sipekne’katik’s ability to sell its licensed fishery lobster to promote prosperity within our community and is a direct attempt to force us out of the very market we have been a part of for years,” Sack said in a press release.
Police and RCMP were notified of the incident but Sack said the non-Indigenous commercial fishers remained at the scene.
The Mi’kmaw fishermen Sack says were targeted on Tuesday hold a “buyers licence” — which allows individuals to purchase fish directly from fishers for the purpose of resale or processing — as part of the Sipken’katik First Nation communal fishery.
The first nation operates a commercial fishery for the benefit of the community but also provides for a “moderate livelihood fishery” so individuals can provide for themselves.
When Tuesday’s confrontation began, other members of the Sipeknet’katik First Nation arrived at the scene after being contacted by the buyer.
Video posted on Facebook shows heated confrontations between supporters and commercial fishermen at both locations.
The standoff continued into the early hours of Wednesday.
“Our community members are understandably very upset; we all know this is an act of systemic racism that is not only terrorizing our people but will also drastically impact our community member’s income this year and potentially our future prosperity,” Sack said.
Fishermens Association, politicians condemn violence
Colin Sproul, a representative of the Bay of Fundy Inshore Fishermens Association, said his group “was not involved in protests or any of the actions last night. We condemn any kind of violence in the fishery.”
“We’ve been clear that we condemn any acts of violence. Chief Sack and I are clear all the problems are incumbent on the Minister of Fisheries to solve, and she’s abdicated her authority to do that,” Sproul said.
Perry Bellegarde, National Chief for the Assembly of First Nations also called for the federal government, RCMP and the province of Nova Scotia to intervene before “someone gets badly injured, or, possibly, killed.”
In a statement, Bellegarde said the Supreme Court of Canada made it clear that Indigenous peoples have a right to moderate livelihood and that they should “not be bullied off the water in this thuggish manner.”
“Continued inaction by the police, and the unwillingness of the federal government to intervene directly in this dispute, only serves to increase the risk of racial violence and damage to these communities, which could last for generations,” Bellegarde said.
“Justice must be served and this intimidation must end.”
In a statement, Bernadette Jordan, the federal Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, said she was “appalled” by the events in Digby County last night.
“I strongly condemn the actions of every individual who destroyed property, committed violence, or uttered threats. There is no place for this kind of violence or intimidation,” Jordan said.
She said that the federal government is “seized” with the issue and that the conversations they have had with the First Nations and commercial fishermen have been “positive.”
“We must ensure they continue that way,” Jordan said.
“Progress cannot be made if individuals resort to violence.”
Minister Jordan was not made available for an interview.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took to Twitter Wednesday evening to join the minister in “strongly condemning” the violence in Digby.
“The acts of violence and intimidation committed in Digby County yesterday are unacceptable,” Trudeau tweeted.
“We cannot continue down this path. We must work together to advance reconciliation and implement First Nation treaty rights.”
RCMP investigating ‘disturbances’
In a press release Wednesday, RCMP said they were investigating both instances as “disturbances.”
At the incident in New Edinburgh, officers arrived at a lobster pound to find 200 people preventing employees from leaving the facility and that some people in the group were throwing rocks at the building and the vehicles nearby.
Although officers attempted to mediate and keep the peace, they confirmed officers extinguished a vehicle that was set on fire and that damage was done to people and commercial property.
At the incident at the facility in Middle West Pubnico, N.S., where Marr was stuck inside, RCMP said they were advised that a large group was preventing employees from leaving and had caused damage to the building.
Although officers attempted to disperse the group the incident escalated, police say, with “further damages” being carried out.
Sack said he’s not sure if anyone has been or will be charged in connection with the incidents.
“With nothing captured on camera we’re not sure if anyone can be charged or was taken into custody for the damage that was caused, but we know this is retaliation for our efforts to move the Moderate Livelihood Fishery forward,” Sack said in the statement.
The Sipken’katik First Nation’s communal fishery was licensed in 2005 by the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) as part of a contribution agreement. The licence permits the Mi’kmaw fishery to “much needed” community resources, Sack said.
“This incident hopefully can further draw the distinction for everyone that the communal fishery revenue has always globally come back to the community and the moderate livelihood fishery is solely aimed at allowing our community members to make a living as individuals,” Sack said.
The Sipeknet’katik First Nation launched its Indigenous-run moderate livelihood lobster fishery in September to mark the 21st anniversary of the 1999 Supreme Court of Canada’s Marshall decision, which affirms treaty rights to fish or hunt for a “moderate livelihood.”
The establishment of the fishery has been met by fierce and heated opposition by non-Indigenous commercial fishermen. They say that the First Nation has no right to launch its own commercial fishery because the fishing season is now closed.
The Marshall decision put no seasonal limits on the treaty rights, though it allows Ottawa to set regulations in consultation with Indigenous communities and for the purpose of conservation.
But with no agreement in place with the DFO in the 21 years since the Marshall decision came down, the Sipeknet’katik First Nation launched the self-regulated fishery.
Emergency meeting to follow
Sack said that damage to the facility is still being assessed but that it has the potential to “be a substantial hit to our bottom line particularly since we are harvesting right now.”
Sack and Sipken’katik First Nation council were to hold an emergency meeting on Wednesday morning to determine the path forward as the investigation into the incident continues.
They are also seeking legal counsel on how to proceed with action against the “commercial fishery as a whole,” Sack said.
The Sipken’katik First Nation is also set to meet with DFO representatives later on Wednesday to discuss its fishery management plan as well as a potential joint conservation study.