The chief of the Sipekne’katik First Nation estimates anywhere between 150 and 200 lobster traps were lost on Friday as non-Indigenous commercial fishers cut lines and destroyed buoys.
Chief Michael Sack told media that he received a number of calls on Friday morning that fishing gear belonging to members of the self-regulated Indigenous “moderate livelihood” fishery was about to be removed.
He recommended that Indigenous fishers stay out of the water for “safety concerns” amid continued tension and violence with non-Indigenous commercial fishers.
“Unfortunately, some of our members went out to check on their gear just because of the position they are in right now due to losing so much of the gear and it’s their last straw that they have so they are out there trying to protect it as we speak,” Sack said.
“We’re trying everything we can to make sure that they’re safe. But I can’t blame them for wanting to protect what is theirs.”
Sack was set to meet with Joel Comeau, the former president of Maritime Fisherman’s Union Local 9, on Friday. But it was called off as a result of reports that non-Indigenous commercial fishers were mobilizing.
Comeau, who had previously expressed a desire to have a dialogue between non-Indigenous commercial fishers and the Sipekne’katik First Nation, only recently resigned from his position as president.
He told Global News on Friday that his family had been threatened by non-Indigenous commercial fishers and it had left his daughter afraid to be home alone.
He said he is worried about his small, predominantly francophone community because it is depressed and “emotionally shattered” by the ongoing tensions with the Indigenous fishing in St. Marys Bay.
The 45-year-old fisher said the federal Fisheries Department has failed to include all parties in talks, and frustrations have boiled over.
“Everybody is hurting inside. My wife pulled me inside and said, ‘We can’t continue this fight,’ ” he said.
Sack said Comeau was willing to learn and understand what the goals of the Sipekne’katik First Nation were.
The chief said Comeau’s resignation should be a clear illustration to Canadians of the kind opposition his people face when attempting to exercise their treaty rights.
“There’s people in the industry that don’t want to hear from anyone. They’re not happy unless it’s their way,” Sack said.
Non-Indigenous commercial fishers have said they are opposed to a decision by the Sipekne’katik First Nation to start a self-regulated moderate livelihood fishery that has operated outside the federally regulated lobster season since mid-September.
While the 1999 Supreme Court of Canada Marshall decision affirmed treaty rights to fish or hunt for a “moderate livelihood,” it also allows Ottawa to set regulations in consultation with Indigenous communities and for the purpose of conservation.
But in the 21 years since the Marshall decision came down, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) and the Sipekne’katik First Nation have yet to agree on a definition of moderate livelihood.
Meeting with DFO unsuccessful
Sack also provided details on a meeting he had with DFO officials Thursday.
He said that the meeting went well and that they are looking to move forward and get “everything defined and all settled.”
“Unfortunately, if the DFO doesn’t act and remove commercial fishermen from the water for interfering with our rights, the conversation will end,” said Sack.
“We’re not going to continue to talk and move forward if they’re not willing to protect us and to uphold our treaty rights.”
It was a comment echoed by two Sipekne’katik First Nation fishers, Robert Sack and Troy Michael, that Global News spoke with on Friday.
Both said they are happy to be exercising their treaty rights but that the federal government needs to protect them from violent attacks.
“The boats just keep coming down here and they taunt us,” said Michael.
They came down to the water on Friday to see if they could salvage any gear that had been cut by the non-Indigenous commercial fishers.
They also attempted to re-lay their lines.
“I don’t understand why they’re not being arrested. But here we are trying to be peaceful, trying to avoid every step of (this) not being a confrontation,” said Robert Sack.
“They’re just there every day, every night taunting, talking, racial slurs and trying to instigate. We’re staying as calm as we can. But I don’t know how long that’s going to last.”
RCMP said they had no boats deployed to the area and referred all comment to DFO.
“The safety and security of all those involved in the fishery remains the Department’s first priority,” a spokesperson for the DFO said in a statement.
“Destroying or tampering with someone else’s fishing gear is considered an offence under the Criminal Code.”
Violent opposition to Indigenous fishery
The week has been dominated by violence and heated confrontations as members of the Sipekne’katik have attempted to continue exercising their treaty rights.
Tuesday saw two lobster facilities, one in New Edinburgh, N.S., and one Middle West Pubnico, N.S., swarmed and vandalized by crowds estimated to be as high as 200 people.
At the facility in New Edinburgh, the crowd removed and damaged video cameras then ransacked the lobster pound and storage facility where the lobster catch was to be housed.
Later that night, the same thing occurred at a lobster pound in Middle West Pubnico, an Indigenous fisher told Global News.
Mi’kmaw fisherman Jason Marr and others were forced to take cover inside the lobster pound as the building’s windows were smashed out and Marr’s vehicle was damaged, he said.
“They vandalized (my van) and they were peeing on it, pouring things into the fuel tank, cutting electrical wires,” Marr told Global News by phone on Wednesday. He also claimed they smashed the windows of the van, and said he saw them kicking, punching and hitting it with objects.
Video taken on Tuesday night and posted on Facebook shows a damaged vehicle at the scene.
Marr alleges the non-Indigenous fishers threatened to “burn” his group out of the building if they didn’t leave and allow them to seize the lobster catch.
“I thought they were gonna kill me,” the Mi’kmaw fisherman said.
Eventually, the group was forced to leave. Marr claims the non-Indigenous fishermen destroyed his catch, which he estimated was probably worth $40,000.
The non-Indigenous fishers allege the RCMP took a long time to respond and stood by or only intervened when physical harm appeared about to occur.
RCMP have disputed that characterization, with spokesperson Cpl. Andrew Joyce saying officers were looking to give a “measured response” and make sure that everyone got home safely.
On Friday, RCMP confirmed to Global News that they have not yet laid any charges in connection with the incidents on Tuesday.
Call for RCMP and Prime Minister to act
On Thursday, Sack shared a letter calling on the prime minister to do something in response to the inaction from RCMP.
The chief called for more law enforcement to be deployed to the area in order to keep his people safe.
“Members of my community, including myself, have been physically assaulted, harassed, intimidated and are victims of racism and violence by a mob of vigilantes that have sought to prevent the Rule of Law from operating as we exercise our Constitutionally enshrined Treaty right,” reads the letter.
Sack also announced that the Sipekne’katik First Nation plans to file civil lawsuits against any individuals, organizations or businesses that have infringed or attempted to prevent its members from exercising their treaty rights.
The visibly frustrated chief lambasted Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Bernadette Jordan, minister of fisheries and oceans, for tweeting about the violence his people have suffered instead of taking action.
“Does Trudeau care about our people? Does he care about Indigenous people? He’s talked about it but I don’t see any action,” Sack said.
With files from Global News’ Ross Lord and The Canadian Press