The chief of the First Nation that has launched its own self-regulated lobster fishery and been the victim of multiple violent attacks in return said on Monday that he welcomed the words from four federal ministers, but that more was necessary to ensure their treaty rights are being protected.
“Actions speak louder than words,” said Chief Michael Sack of the Sipekne’katik First Nation on Monday.
At a joint press conference on Monday, Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan, Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller, Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett and Public Safety Minister Bill Blair condemned the violent attacks against Mi’kmaq lobster fishermen which culminated this weekend in a massive fire that burned a lobster compound to the ground.
“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.”
Read more: Additional RCMP officers deployed in N.S
Blair also confirmed that he has approved a request from the province of Nova Scotia to call on RCMP officers from P.E.I. and New Brunswick in order to bolster the numbers able to respond to incidents of violence.
RCMP have been criticized for their officers appearing to stand by during confrontations between non-Indigenous fishers and the Mi’kmaq fishers, or only intervening when physical violence appeared imminent.
“It seems like the police officers standing there are just standing by. You’re not there to protect anyone and that’s stressful for our fishermen,” said Sack at a press conference on Monday in Indian Brook, N.S.
It was a statement that echoed comments made by Miller only hours before.
“Indigenous people have been let down by the police,” Miller said at the press conference.
Sack has been critical of the RCMP’s response to the violence. On Monday, Sack welcomed the news that more police officers could be deployed if necessary, although he said numbers have increased over the weekend.
“There is more police presence on the ground. We’re grateful for that as well,” said Sack.
His main concern at this point is the ability for his fishermen to exercise their treaty rights.
“If (commercial fishermen) come back to haul gear our people are exposed,” said Sack, referring to the repeated sabotage of Indigenous-laid lobster traps and buoys.
He insisted that fisheries officers need to be on the water as at the moment “there’s been no presence there at all,” Sack said.
The chief said that although he was grateful for the condemnation of violence and the commitment to doing it better, it doesn’t fix what’s happened.
“You can’t say sorry for something that already went down, you know what I mean? We could’ve lost people in that situation and ‘sorry’ doesn’t save lives,” Sack said.
Indigenous treaty rights
Both Miller and Jordan promised on Monday to uphold the right for Mi’kmaq to fish or hunt for a “moderate livelihood,” a treaty right that was recognized by the Supreme Court of Canada’s 1999 Marshall decision.
Although moderate livelihood was not formally defined by the court, a subsequent decision ruled that the government did have the authority to impose some regulations for the purposes of conservation, subject to nation-to-nation consultations.
With no clear definition in the 21 years since the Marshall decision, the Sipekne’katik First Nation launched its self-regulated moderate livelihood fishery in September.
Non-Indigenous commercial fishermen have opposed that decision, arguing that it is a fishery operating outside of the federally regulated lobster season which they abide by.
The opposition to the Indigenous fishery came to a head last week when two lobster facilities, one in New Edinburgh, N.S., and one Middle West Pubnico, N.S., were swarmed and vandalized by crowds estimated to number as many as 200 people.
Commercial fishermen protest at fisheries office
Approximately 300 non-Indigenous commercial fishermen and their supporters gathered at a Department of Fisheries and Oceans office in Barrington Passage, N.S., early on Monday.
Ruth Inniss, a fisheries advisor with the Maritime Fishermen’s Union, said that her organization condemns all forms of violence and they want to be “at the table” during negotiations between the federal government and First Nations.
“We’re also trying to fight the fact that we’re being portrayed as racist and treating the First Nations people savagely,” said Inniss in a video call on Monday.
She said that the non-Indigenous fishers want to have a fishery that is governed by one set of rules and “not two sets of conservation rules for two different communities.”
Innis said that “this is not just a fisheries issue” and that fishermen respect the First Nation’s treaty rights.
But it’s those same rights that are enshrined in the Marhsall decision and which all four ministers committed to protecting on Monday.
Biologists have disputed that there should be conservation concerns over the moderate-livelihood fishery, which operates on a comparatively small scale to commercial fishermen.
On Monday, that assessment was echoed by the Fisheries Minister who said fishery stocks in the region are thriving.
Innis disputed that conservation isn’t an issue, insisting that the reality on the ground is much different for those who live in the communities that rely on lobster fishing.
“There are seasons for a reason and that’s so fish can grow and you know multiply,” she said.
“When you keep taking out the fish when that process is going on it’s a science issue.”
Sack said he believes the concern raised by commercial fishermen over conservation is over.
“(Minister Bernadette Jordan) said that the lobster stocks are strong. So, you know, that puts the conservation issue to rest.”
With files from Global News’ Amanda Connolly, Alicia Draus and Graeme Benjamin