The Attacks On Mi’kmaq Lobster Fishers In Nova Scotia, Explained

Photo: REUTERS/John Morris.
For five weeks now, Mi'kmaq fishers in Nova Scotia have faced violent and racist attacks for exercising their treaty rights to catch lobster outside the province’s commercial season. Non-Indigenous fishers have removed their traps, vandalized their property, and bullied and harassed Mi’kmaq fishers as they simply tried to operate their fishery.
This week, the federal government finally met to address the national crisis, which many are worried could get even more violent if there’s no intervention (something even Mark Ruffalo has weighed in on). Here, we break down everything that has happened in the Nova Scotia lobster dispute so far — and what experts say needs to happen next. 

What set off the Nova Scotia lobster dispute?

The conflict started in mid-September when the Sipekne’katik First Nation launched its own moderate fishery in St. Marys Bay in western Nova Scotia. A moderate fishery is small-scale operation; Sipekne’katik’s self-regulated fishery allows band members with fishing licenses to set out 50 traps each.  
Though there is only one other moderate fishery in the province (for now), the Mi’kmaq people have had the okay to do this for centuries. Treaty agreements made with European colonizers in the 1700s gave the Mi’kmaq the right to hunt, fish, and gather in pursuit of a “moderate livelihood.” That was upheld by a 1999 Supreme Court ruling known as the Marshall decision in favour of Mi’kmaq fisherman Donald Marshall Jr. Marshall was arrested for fishing for eels without a license during off-season, but the court decided that based on treaty rights he could, in fact, fish whenever he wanted. But even though the court said Marshall wasn’t breaking any law, it failed to define “moderate livelihood.” (Remember this term, it plays into the current dispute.)
All this to say that what the Mi’kmaq fishers from the Sipekne’katik First Nation are doing now is entirely within their rights. The problem? Commercial fishers don’t agree.

So, what went wrong?

Within 24 hours of the launch of the Mi’kmaq fishery, Non-Indigenous fishers retaliated, removing Mi’kmaq lobster traps on the water and vandalizing their equipment. On Oct. 17, a suspicious fire burned down a lobster pound (a facility in which live lobsters are kept before sale) in Middle West Pubnico where Mi’kmaq-caught lobster was being stored. The fire occurred just days after a mob of 200 non-Indigenous protestors surrounded the same facility, barricading Mi’kmaq fishers inside and throwing rocks at the building. The crowd also ransacked the property and destroyed thousands of pounds of lobster. 
These rioters are not only threatening the livelihood of the Mi’kmaq fishers but also their lives. One of the trapped Mi’kmaq fishers, Jason Marr, told the Globe and Mail that his truck was vandalized and the crowd threatened to burn the building down with him inside. “They threw rocks and smashed every window,” he said. "I watched them pour stuff in my gas tank and my van, slash the tires, cut wires.”
On the same day as the Middle West Pubnico assault, another lobster storage facility in New Edinburgh was also attacked by a mob. The next day, Sipekne'katik First Nation Chief Michael Sack was allegedly assaulted by a non-Indigenous protester, who has since been charged by police

Why do non-Indigenous fishers see the concept of “moderate livelihood” as such a threat?

They take issue with the idea that Mi’kmaq fishers can trap lobsters within parameters that they can’t. The province’s 5,700 commercial fishers are only allowed to fish between November and late May, per government regulations. They also allege that the Indigenous fishery is being used as a cloak for a large-scale commercial fishery — something the Mi’kmaq reject. 
A big part of the tension comes from the problem there's no definition of what “moderate livelihood” actually means. Because no one can explain how much money or how much lobster fits the criteria, the Mi'kmaq fishers are now being targeted for trying to support themselves.
The federal government has dragged its feet on defining this term for years, Dr. Chandrakant Shah, a professor emeritus at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health and a consulting physician at Anishnawbe Health Toronto, tells Refinery29. “For the last 21 years [since the 1999 Supreme Court decision]… we’ve kind of left this issue in limbo,” Shah says. “That is what the crux of the matter is really."
“While the Supreme Court of Canada supported our right to fish commercially, [there’s] this restriction placed on it with this ‘moderate livelihood’ idea,” adds Patti Doyle-Bedwell, a Mi’kmaq woman, lawyer and writer, and associate professor of Indigenous Studies at Dalhousie University.
Moreover, the effects of colonization have had such severe effects on Indigenous communities, including higher rates of poverty, that she questions why Mi'kmaq fishers are limited to these parameters in the first place. “At the time the treaties were signed, we were getting pushed off our land, we were losing access to fishing, territory and hunting territory,” Doyle-Bedwell says. “So my thought is, Why are we being restricted to a moderate livelihood? Because of the impact of colonization that led us to become extremely poor? It makes no sense to me. I think we have to think about it in a different way.”

The lobster “sustainability” argument 

Another argument by non-Indigenous fishers is that by letting the Mi’kmaq fish year-round, they are endangering the lobster population. (If that's the case, legally it means the government has the power to step in and regulate Mi'kmaq fishing.) They say that there needs to be time to let the crustaceans reproduce so stocks aren’t depleted. 
Experts don’t agree. Megan Bailey, a professor at Dalhousie University’s Marine Affairs program, told the Globe and Mail that “there are a thousand commercial fishing boats fishing 350 traps everyday, more or less, between November and May.” With only 11 boats currently taking part in the moderate fishery with 50 traps each, Bailey said the Sipekne’katik First Nation’s entire operation “is about the equivalent then of one of those commercial boats.”
Shah says that Mi’kmaq fishers know more about conservation than settlers do, and that arguments of overfishing are “hogwash.” “They have known how to manage the land and the resources in lakes [for thousands of years],” Shah says. “So when people say that we will run out of this or that, or that conservation is the issue, the issue is probably… implicit bias, or if I want to be very stark, systemic racism.” 

Racism and police inaction in Nova Scotia

Which brings us to the next point: The racism at play in the Nova Scotia lobster dispute. Like the tragic story of Joyce Echaquan, an Indigenous woman who filmed Quebec hospital staff insulting her before she died this fall, this is yet another reminder how systemic racism contributes to the marginalization of and violence against Indigenous people.
The RCMP has been criticized for not stepping in to support the Mi’kmaq fishers as violence has escalated. People have highlighted the fact that if white people were being attacked this way, the response would be very different Mi'kmaq fishers at various attacks said police stood by and watched, and did not intervene when people threw rocks and set a van on fire. In an interview with CTV News, RCMP spokesperson Andrew Joyce said the RCMP doesn't see this conflict as a “police issue,” and that it “understands both sides.”
Others aren't worried about taking sides. In an act of support towards the Mi’kmaq fishers, some Halifax and Montreal restaurants have taken lobster off their menus.

What is the government doing to address the situation in Nova Scota?

After the emergency debate in the House of Commons on Oct. 19, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the Mi’kmaq have the right to fish “without being subjected to threats or racism.” But the PM has yet to announce any specific plans, leading opposition leaders to accuse him of not doing enough to protect the Indigenous community
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh questioned if the Liberals would have been so slow to act if the attacks were happening against a non-Indigenous group. “This is an emergency because … there is a real threat that this violence will escalate and people will lose their lives and that cannot happen and so we need immediate action right now,” he said.
What does that action entail? Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil called on Ottawa to define what constitutes as a “moderate livelihood” to help resolve the issue. Meanwhile, former Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould told the Globe and Mail that the Liberals need to act on their promise to develop a framework around how Indigenous rights will be recognized so people don’t have to go through the courts to prove their rights exist. “We didn’t have to get to this place,” Wilson-Raybould said. “This isn’t just with respect to the Mi’kmaq.”
Doyle-Bedwell says conversations need to be had about Mi'kmaq involvement in the lobster fishing industry — conversations that include both non-Indigenous fishers and the entire Mi'kmaw nation. “People have to understand that this is a treaty right that is protected by the constitution,” she says. “We have a right to operate our fisheries, and the government has to step up, stop ignoring this issue about what ‘moderate livelihood’ means and actually sit down and start talking because this violence can’t continue.”

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