Mi’kmaw woman Shawna Jerome said watching the Nova Scotia fishing rights dispute is “disgusting.”
She’s watched helplessly from her home in Quebec over the past month, but on Saturday she took a stand for her nation by joining dozens of protesters in downtown Montreal to fight for Indigenous rights.
“Let us fish, and we’ll let them fish. Stay on your own side and respect one another,” Jerome said.
The ongoing dispute between Indigenous and non-Indigenous fishermen spans decades. Most recently, commercial fisherman were mad at the Sipekne’katik First Nation for opening a lobster fishery in St. Mary’s Bay, N.S., in September, outside of the federally regulated commercial season.
Protests against the fishery in the past weeks have escalated to violence, destruction and mob attacks.
“We have a right to fish and to hunt,” said organizer Dakotah Lahache. “The treaties were put in place by the government to give us the right to do so.”
In 1999, Canada’s Supreme Court ruled in the landmark case R. v. Marshall that several treaties signed in the 1760s granting the Mi’kmaq the right to harvest and sell fish were still valid. The over 250-year-old agreement, known as the Peace and Friendship Treaties, specified that the Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq had the right to earn a “moderate livelihood.”
The Sipekne’katik First Nation fishery was defined by the Supreme Court ruling to be within its constitutional rights, but also a move that has hundreds of non-Indigenous commercial fishermen up in arms.
The interpretation of a “moderate livelihood” differs vastly today from when treaties were signed hundreds of years ago, says Osgoode Indigenous Law professor Signa Daum Shanks.
“When I think of livelihood, I think of higher than surviving, I think of it being part of how someone might define themselves professionally or vocationally and I think of moderate being stable,” she said.
In order to ease the tension in Nova Scotia, protesters in Montreal say they want the federal government to take action.
Organizer Cheyenne Lahache says she hopes “that it will de-escalate and we won’t have to continue to fight for treaties that were written so long ago and we won’t have to continue to fight for our rights that should be given to us naturally.”
In an email statement to Global News, Jane Deeks, press secretary for the minister responsible for fisheries and oceans, said: “The Minister remains fully committed to working with First Nations in Nova Scotia to implement their Treaty Rights. These are complex, longstanding issues and the best way to resolve them is through dialogue. The Minister will continue to work with First Nations leadership to address their concerns and develop a path forward.”
— With files from Global’s David Lao