Sipekne’katik face violence in struggle over the Mi’kmaq right to fish for a moderate livelihood

Published by Brent Patterson on

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Facebook photo by Saqmaw Leroy Jown Denny of a gathering in Saulnierville, Nova Scotia on September 17 in support of Indigenous fishing rights.

There are tensions right now on Sipekne’katik territory in Nova Scotia on the Atlantic coast of eastern Canada in relation to the Mi’kmaq right to fish for a moderate livelihood that was affirmed in a Supreme Court ruling 21 years ago.

On September 15, Ku’ku’kwes News reported that Chief Michael Sack of the Sipekne’katik First Nation had called on authorities “to uphold the rule of law amid ongoing violence, threats, human rights discrimination and ongoing failure to uphold the 1999 Supreme Court of Canada decision in R. v. Marshall, recognizing the Mi’kmaq right to fish and trade.”

In that article, Chief Sack highlighted: “Our fisher people are facing harassment, vehicles have been damaged, boats have been damaged. Their fishing gear has been stolen, their lines have been cut. Boats have been burned.”

Then on September 17, CBC reported Sipekne’katik boats launched that day on St. Marys Bay were met on the water by non-Indigenous fishers.

Sakura Saunders describes the situation: “Over 60 commercial fishery boats (including trawlers) rallied to intimidate 5 Mi’kmaq fishing boats with 50 traps each attempting to practice their treaty rights on the 21st anniversary of the Marshall Decision.”

The CBC article also notes: “On [September 15], hundreds of non-Indigenous commercial fishermen set up lobster-trap blockades in Saulnierville and later in Weymouth in the province’s southwest to protest what they said were illegal fisheries in St. Marys Bay.”

Saulnierville and Weymouth are about 250 kilometres west of Halifax (K’jipuktuk).

The CBC further notes: “In a statement, Colin Sproul of the Bay of Fundy Inshore Fishermen’s Association said the First Nation issuing its own fishing licences is ‘not based in Canadian law’. He would not confirm whether any vandalism took place, but said: ‘In the absence of law and order good people can be forced to take the law into their own hands and the responsibility for that falls squarely on [federal Fisheries] Minister [Bernadette] Jordan and her predecessors who have not enforced the rules.’”

Saunders has also called on Sproul to retract this statement that appears to encourage vigilantism. She has posted: “Tensions are high and he should be de-escalating the violence, not justifying or encouraging it.”

The Supreme Court of Canada issued its decision on the case of Donald Marshall, Jr. on September 17, 1999.

It ruled that Marshall’s fishing activities fell within the Peace and Friendship Treaties of 1760–61 that created an ongoing treaty right “to obtain necessaries through hunting and fishing by trading the products of…traditional activities.”

Significantly, it found that Marshall was selling the eel he was catching in limited quantities to “obtain necessaries” as a “moderate livelihood”.

The Sipekne’katik say: “No responsible person can legitimately argue that the Mi’kmaq right to fish for a moderate livelihood or that the right to sell that catch commercially does not exist. The Supreme Court of Canada said they do.”

They add: “Since Marshall was decided, [the federal Fisheries Department] has done nothing to recognize the treaty right to harvest and sell for a moderate livelihood. This breach of Mi’kmaq constitutional rights and can no longer continue.”

The Toronto Star further explains: “Bruce Wildsmith, the lawyer who represented Marshall in 1999, said while it’s true Ottawa retains the right to regulate, the Marshall decision also says the fisheries minister must propose regulations and then consult with the Mi’kmaq about those rules [which has not been done over the past two decades].”

The Burnt Church Crisis that followed the Supreme Court ruling in September 1999 is told in a feature-length National Film Board documentary by Alanis Obomsawin that can be watched online at: Is the Crown at war with us?

On October 3, 1999, about 150 fishing boats headed out into Miramachi Bay and destroyed lobster traps set up by Indigenous fishers. CBC reports: “Mi’kmaq warriors [in New Brunswick then] set up an armed encampment on the wharf in Burnt Church [Esgenoopetitj] to protect native people continuing to catch lobster in the bay.”

Look for updates on the current situation from various sources, including the In Solidarity with all Land Defenders Facebook page.

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