For ways you can support Sipekne’katik First Nation and Mi’kmaq indigenous fishermen in Nova Scotia, please visit this link (shared by @platform_ca on Instagram).
On September 17th, 2020, Sipekne’katik First Nation opened its self-regulated lobster fishery in Weymouth, Nova Scotia that operates outside of the commercial fishing season. The opening of the fishery is within constitutionally protected treaty rights for Mi’kmaq peoples to fish for a “moderate livelihood”.
Since then, increasing violence, angry mobs, and blatant anti-indigenous racism have dominated the region. Non-indigenous commercial fishermen have continuously perpetuated racist actions and rhetoric in the name of concerns for the sustainability of the lobster populations and the legality of the Mi’kmaq self-regulated fishery.
This issue isn’t new. The vague “moderate livelihood” term comes from a landmark Supreme Court of Canada ruling in the late 90s on the case of Mi’kmaq fisherman Donald Marshall Jr who was arrested for catching and selling eels in the offseason and without a licence. It was affirmed that it is within treaty rights for Mi’kmaq peoples to fish and hunt to sustain a “moderate livelihood”, a term that can be interpreted in many ways and that is adding complexity to the situation happening now.
In the days after the opening of Sipekne’katik’s fishery, there were confrontations as well as organized efforts by non-indigenous fishermen to remove Mi’kmaq lobster traps and dump catches. The situation continued to escalate over the following weeks with more equipment destroyed, people harassed by mobs, and intimidation tactics used such as surrounding a Mi’kmaq fishing boat with several commercial boats in St. Mary’s Bay.
The violence and attacks escalated further in mid-October when a mob of 200 attacked lobster pounds holding an indigenous-caught lobster in Middle West Pubnico and New Edinburgh, barricading Mi’kmaq fishermen inside, throwing rocks, and setting fire to a van. One of the buildings was destroyed in a fire a few days later that was deemed “suspicious” by police. Since the initial incidents in September, the RCMP have been criticized for their insufficient response.
Those who oppose the Sipekne’katik fishery have used the argument that it is operating outside of the federal lobster season, which runs from late November to late May, and that it will negatively affect the lobster population and harm sustainability. But both these claims have been dismissed by experts and lawmakers. Firstly, it is within treaty rights for Mi’kmaq peoples to fish whenever and wherever they want, which is supported by the Marshall case Supreme Court ruling.
Concerning the sustainability argument, experts such as Professor Megan Baily of Dalhousie University’s Marine Affairs program explains in a Globe and Mail interview that the catches of the self-regulated fishery won’t even make a dent in the lobster population. To illustrate, Sipekne’katik’s fishery operates about 350 traps with seven licenses compared to the 390 000 traps operated by the hundreds of licenced non-indigenous fishermen.
First Nations leaders and others continue to point out that while on the surface the issue is about lobster fishing, the underlying issues are the longstanding and Canada-wide anti-indigenous racism and ongoing colonialism that threaten indigenous self-determination and their right to the land.
Mi’kmaq communities in Nova Scotia continue to stand strong against opposition with many communities, businesses, and individuals, both indigenous and non-indigenous expressing solidarity across Canada.