By Emma MacFarlane
The tale of fishing disputes in Nova Scotia dates back to the early 1990s, when Donald Marshal Jr. was charged with illegal catching and selling of eels in Cape Breton. By 1999, Marshal had appealed his decision all the way to the Supreme Court, citing a 250-year-old treaty that ensured his right to fish anytime, anywhere, so long as it was in order to support himself and his family. The court agreed with this ruling, and Marshall was acquitted. The court, however, came back to clarify that their ruling meant that Marshal could only fish to provide a “moderate living” and could not fish to accumulate mass amounts of wealth. According to legal experts, this clarification was a call to action for the federal and provincial governments to create policy to protect Indigenous rights and prevent issues such as this one from arising again, however no policies or practices were implemented to form a sustainable solution.
This lack of action allowed Indigenous fishermen to take matters into their own hands. In September of 2020, after Ashton Bernard was charged for fishing and selling lobster in a similar fashion to Marshal, the Sipekne’katik First Nation opened a livelihood lobster fishery in order to protect themselves from the scrutiny of commercial fishermen. Commercial fishermen highlighted environmental and livelihood concerns should the First Nations overfish the waters. In recent years, lobster fishing has become and extremely lucrative market, and it seemed that commercial fishermen were unhappy they would be sharing the waters and profits with Indigenous fishermen.
The claws came out on October 12th, 2020 when well over 200 commercial fishermen and their associates vandalized and burgled two separate facilities where First Nation fishermen had been storing their lobster hauls and fishing supplies. Fires, threats, and theft were the weapons of choice by commercial fishermen, and the “environmental concerns” they had voiced when originally confronting the Mi’kmaq fishermen seemed moot, as hundreds of pounds of live, sellable lobster were dumped onto the pavement to meet a cold end. As of November 14th, 2020, the RCMP has only made a handful of arrests and laid even fewer actual charges. Furthermore, they have not confirmed whether the arrests are related to the incident itself, despite video and eye-witness evidence. This lack of action on the part of RCMP has been publicly criticized by Chief Sack of the Sip’knekatik First Nation, who has had to instead pursue civil lawsuits against individuals who partook in the vandalism of the fisheries.
With the threatening and intimidating behaviour of commercial fishermen and little assistance from authority or government, the Indigenous fishermen of Nova Scotia needed a creative solution for peace, and fast. Enter Premium Brands Holdings Corporation. Partnering with several Mi’kmaq First Nations, they structured a $1billion dollar deal to purchase Clearwater Seafoods Inc. This is the largest seafood purchase by a Canadian Indigenous group in history and will likely be marked as a pillar for change and cooperation between Indigenous and commercial fishermen. Upon completion of this deal, this partnership will give Mi’kmaq fishermen sole holding rights Canadian Clearwater’s fishing licenses.
This is a major win for Indigenous fishermen, and for First Nations across Canada. This collaboration will hopefully encourage collaboration with commercial and First Nation fishermen, otherwise they will likely see a drop in their sales and livelihood. Without violence or force, the First Nations are now able to turn the tables in their favour in the lobster fishing industry. Clearly, this is a fantastic example of triumph over those who would continue to oppress Indigenous rights and is a step in the direction of independence and self-sufficiency for First Nations. Only time will tell how this victory plays out for them.
Despite this victory, there is still a need for government intervention. The Mi’kmaq establishing themselves as a major player in the lobster fishing industry should be a wakeup call to the federal government to play a much more active role in issues such as this one, to prevent them from reoccurring and alleviating the pressure First Nation’s face when having to solve these issues. In order to promote peaceful collaboration between commercial and First Nation fishermen, policies and attitudes must be adjusted. Further policy is needed to outline the actual meaning of a “moderate livelihood” and the “mass accumulation of wealth” on the part of Indigenous fishermen. Furthermore, the provincial and federal government must be tasked with achieving a balance between Indigenous fishing rights and sustainable fishing policies to be applied to all fishermen. Finally, an inquiry should be launched to examine RCMP practices when acts of targeted violence such as the vandalism in October occur, and examine why it was necessary for the First Nations to take settlement matters into their own hands. Though these processes may be a long and tedious process, it will be undoubtedly shorter than the decades that the parties involved have gone without substantial policy on the subject.