Speaker Anthony Rota approved the request for an emergency debate Monday afternoon from Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan and NDP MP Gord Johns. The move comes after a weekend of violence that saw one Mi’kmaw lobster fishing compound burnt to the ground.
After more than fours hours of debating, the session was adjourned until 10 a.m. ET on Tuesday.
Speaking at the debate Monday evening, NDP leader Jagmeet Singh called on the Liberal government to develop a plan to ensure the safety and livelihood of the Mi’kmaw people.
“We need timelines, we need a clear plan, a clear plan of action to protect the Mi’kmaw people,” he said. “We need to see a clear plan to protect them on land when their fishery operations are on that and in water.”
“We need to ensure that there is no more violence or intimidation against the Mi’kmaw people.”
Singh continued, saying there is “no question” that the Mi’kmaw fishing operation poses any threat to lobster conservation.
“Any suggestion that this is about conservation is wrong (and) is clearly an example of systemic racism,” he said.
Jordan told the House of Commons she “wholeheartedly condemns” the violence in Nova Scotia, adding that the incidents serve as a “reminder that there is still more work to be done, work that we can do together as part of reconciliation.”
“I cannot emphasize more of the need for respectful dialogue and respect for treaty rights as we work towards a peaceful resolution,” she said.
According to Jordan, she has been meeting with Indigenous leaders and members of the fishing industry and said she will “continue to do so, even once this crisis has passed.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau echoed Jordan’s remarks, saying he “strongly condemns any form of violence, harassment and intimidation towards the Mi’kmaq in Nova Scotia.”
“There is no place for racism in our country,” he said. “The appalling violence must stop now. It’s unacceptable, it is shameful and it is criminal.”
Trudeau said the community has a treaty right to fish, “without being subjected to threats or racism.”
However, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole slammed the Liberal government’s handling of the situation, saying it has known of the escalating tensions in the province for months.
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O’Toole also took aim at the Liberals saying the party failed to consult with the Indigenous community when making policy decisions.
Earlier on Monday, members of the Liberal cabinet condemned the violence as “disgusting” and “racist,” warning the Mi’kmaq have a constitutionally protected treaty right to fish for what the Supreme Court in its 1999 Marshall decision described as a “moderate livelihood.”
Jordan said in a joint press conference with cabinet colleagues Monday morning that discussions are ongoing with Mi’kmaw communities to come to a definition of what that means.
The court did not clearly define the right but did subsequently rule some limits could be set on it.
At issue in the recent conflict is how that right is applied outside the commercial lobster fishing season.
Non-Indigenous lobster fishers have destroyed traps and catch, and threatened Mi’kmaw lobster fishers with violent mobs in recent weeks, escalating in the burning of a compound overnight on Saturday.
Mi’kmaw lobster fishers have said they are exercising their right to fish for themselves and also to sell their catch, even though the commercial lobster season is currently closed.
Public Safety Minister Bill Blair has made a plea to the public for anyone with video or information about the threats being made against Mi’kmaw fishers or the violence on their fishing compounds to come forward.
“I want all Canadians to know we are taking these threats and the violence that has taken place very seriously,” said Blair. “I know from experience when violence takes place, it can tear communities apart.”
He said investigations remain ongoing but that he has approved a request from RCMP in Nova Scotia to be able to call on force members from neighbouring provinces in the Atlantic bubble to bolster their response to the violence, which has been criticized as failing to protect Indigenous people.
“Indigenous people have been let down by the police,” said Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said at the press conference, something that prompted pushback from a union representing some members of the force.
The National Police Federation, which represents roughly 20,000 RCMP members, pushed back on those criticisms on Monday, arguing the matter is a political — not a policing — issue.
“Disputes related to fisheries laws are, regrettably, not new. But they’re also, at their core, not policing issues. They’re inherently political issues that we are calling on federal and provincial governments to address in partnership with Indigenous peoples and all affected parties,” said Brian Sauvé, president of the organization.
“When our elected officials fail to find workable solutions and tensions resultingly boil over, front- line RCMP members are given the extremely difficult and dangerous task of physically inserting themselves into political disputes, outnumbered and doing their best to keep participants and the public safe.”
He called for federal officials to work to address the political disputes underlying the matter “so that our members are not continually tasked with responding to deteriorating circumstances and preventable failures.”
Miller and Jordan vowed the government will uphold the right of the Mi’kmaq to fish for a “moderate livelihood,” with Jordan stressing the work to define that is underway. But she said federal officials and Indigenous communities need space and peace to be able to work towards a shared definition of that.
Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Carolyn Bennet said the failure to define moderate livelihood has “maintained the uncertainty.”
However, speaking during the debate later on Monday, Bennett, said she is “confident” that a resolution can be found, adding that a “timely and peaceful resolution” will make Nova Scotia and the country stronger.
Jordan did not say what kinds of regulations the government may be considering but said negotiations were “on a path forward.”
Miller stressed the complex and difficult nature of the talks, comparing the balance needed between protecting treaty rights and crafting a definition for “moderate livelihood” as a “fault line.”
Trudeau issued a statement on Monday saying he had spoken about the violence with Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil.
“They agreed on the need for all parties to engage in respectful dialogue aimed at upholding the Marshall decision and the Mi’kmaw treaty right to fish while ensuring the conservation and sustainability of the fishery,” the statement said.
“They welcomed cooperation between Minister Blair and Minister Furey to increase RCMP police presence in the area to protect the safety of all citizens.”
One man described as a person of interest in the blaze at the lobster compound is in hospital with life-threatening injuries.
The Mounties have made two arrests in relation to other incidents linked to the dispute, charging one man with assault against a local Indigenous chief and charging another with arson in connection with a burned vehicle.
Non-Indigenous fishers in Nova Scotia take issue with the Mi’kmaw people fishing outside the federally determined fishing season, but Ottawa notes that the treaty right for the Mi’kmaq to fish for a moderate living is constitutionally protected.
The treaty was upheld by the Supreme Court of Canada in 1999, but some non-Indigenous critics point to a clarification issued by the court that says the treaty rights would be subject to federal regulations.
On Sunday, McNeil said Ottawa must define what constitutes legal harvesting in a moderate livelihood fishery.
McNeil tweeted that the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans needs to answer that question before the province can examine its own rules for fish buyers.
— With files from Global News’ Hannah Jackson