During an hours-long debate in the House of Commons that sought to find solutions to the conflict between Mi’kmaq lobster fishers and non-Indigenous commercial fishers, West Nova MP Chris D’Entremont said he was frustrated it took escalating violence to get his colleagues to pay attention to the issue.
“This has been happening for weeks. This has been happening for months,” he said.
“Finally, people seem interested in what’s happening in West Nova. Where the heck — excuse me — where were you? Where were the other MPs?”
The emergency debate was requested by Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan and NDP MP Gord Johns, after a massive fire burned down a lobster pound used by the Mi’kmaq early Saturday morning.
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.”
During the evening debate, D’Entremont pushed back on widespread assertions of racism, saying the actions of a few do not represent all of his constituents.
“Please don’t paint my area as racist,” he said. “There’s probably a few, as in many of our ridings. Systemic racism is true in Canada, but my area is not by default racist.”
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said during the debate that there is “no question” that the Mi’kmaq fishing operation poses no threat to lobster conservation.
“Any suggestion that this is about conservation is wrong (and) is clearly an example of systemic racism,” he said.
At issue in the recent conflict is how the Mi’kmaq treaty right is applied outside the commercial lobster fishing season.
Non-Indigenous lobster fishers have destroyed traps and catch, and threatened Mi’kmaq lobster fishers with violent mobs in recent weeks, culminating in Saturday’s fire.
Mi’kmaq 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.
Liberal MP for Cape Breton Jaime Battiste, the only Mi’kmaq politician sitting in Parliament, expressed optimism during the debate that lawmakers could reach a solution.
But he reminded his colleagues that the treaty right established by the Marshall decision was retroactive, and that Canada has an obligation to honour it.
“The fact is today, the Mi’kmaq are asking for a right that they’ve always had,” he said. “It wasn’t created in 1999. In ’99, the court said that the right existed the whole time.
“The fact that the Mi’kmaq aren’t looking for reparations or revenge — rather, they’re looking for reconciliation — shows our commitment to this country and our allies.”
Chief Michael Sack of the Sipekne’katik First Nation, which launched the Mi’kmaq lobster fishery in September, said on Monday that he welcomed the words from federal ministers but that more was necessary to ensure their treaty rights are being protected.
“Actions speak louder than words,” he said.
“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.
Sack also said he believes the concern raised by commercial fishermen over conservation is over.
“(Jordan) said that the lobster stocks are strong. So, you know, that puts the conservation issue to rest,” he said.
Trudeau issued a statement on Monday saying he had spoken about the violence with Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil.
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.
—With files from Global News’ Amanda Connolly, Hannah Jackson and Alexander Quon