By Cicely Belle Blain Photography by Stephen Brake, Ku'ku'kwes News
“THIS IS TERRORISM” are the words that Dr. Pam Palmater writes alongside a video on Twitter. The video depicts a lobster pound, ablaze, in Middle West Pubnico, Nova Scotia. A week prior, the same building was the site of a 200-person mob descending on two Mi’kmaw fishers who were forced to barricade themselves inside. The issue, being touted by mainstream media as “tension” or “conflict” between Indigenous and non-Indigenous fishers, is actually the latest chapter in a multi-century-long process of settler colonialism.
For thousands of years, the Mi’kmaq have been gentle stewards of the lands and waters (Mi’kma’ki) that stretch across parts of what are colonially known as Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Quebec and New Brunswick. In contrast, and in a comparatively short period of time, commercial fishing businesses have contributed to degradation, overfishing and ocean pollution.
Non-Indigenous fishers fear that the Mi’kmaq’s ability to fish year-round will impact the conservation and availability of lobster. This fear spurs anti-Indigenous violence, yet is unfounded. The Sipekne’katik First Nation has issued seven lobster licences and 350 traps in an area of Nova Scotia called St. Mary’s Bay. This is in contrast to the 2,979 lobster licences and 390,000 traps issued to commercial fishers in the same waters (APTN News).
Enacted in 1999, the Marshall Decision - named for Donald Marshall Jr., a Mi’kmaw fisherman who was arrested for fishing eel out of season — allows the Mi’kmaq to make a moderate living from fishing year-round. After the decision was made, some non-Indigenous fishers responded with arson and vandalism — tactics used against the Mi’kmaq community today. The communities that have preserved marine life for millennia are once again being targeted by settler fishers — with the complicity of the Canadian government, the police and other colonial forces.
“Mi’kmaw peoples pay a heavy price for the failure of Canada to uphold the rule of law. The failure to respect court decisions like the Marshall case results in ongoing breaches of our inherent, Aboriginal and treaty rights, not just in terms of enforced poverty and over-incarceration, but also the violence and risk to our lives by those who have long benefitted from the spoils of centuries of racist, violent and genocidal laws, policies and practices,” writes Dr. Palmater for Canadian Dimension.
The ongoing violence towards the Mi’kmaq is a blatant violation of treaties, Canadian laws and even international laws. In 2010, Canada endorsed the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP) while Conservative leader Stephen Harper was Prime Minister. However, much like the Marshall Decision where a failure to enshrine justice into legislation resulted in loopholes that benefit settlers, UNDRIP was endorsed with the proviso that it was a “statement of aspiration, not legally binding.” Despite a change of government, Indigenous rights are still falling through the cracks of ambiguous agreements.
Mainstream media, Western education and settler-centric history books lead us to believe that in honouring treaties, Canada is doing Indigenous people a favour. However, as Sto:lo writer Lee Maracle points out, “Canada gets to be Canada by meeting its treaty obligations. That is, [settlers] get to be here, at our good grace and our goodwill, not the other way around.”
The Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaw Chiefs declared a state of emergency on Sept. 18, 2020. Under attack, the community mobilized. Indigenous activists and community members from numerous nations and their allies responded in creative and culturally significant ways.
Cheryl Maloney was one such activist. Maloney is a member of the Sipekne’katik First Nation, and on Oct. 16, she travelled to the Nova Scotia legislature. Her activism was simple, yet powerful; she set up shop outside Province House and sold lobsters fished by her fellow Mi’kmaq. The 100 pounds of lobster were caught by Jason Marr, one of the Mi’kmaw fishers who was trapped inside the pound in Middle West Pubnico the week prior.
In the same city, and many others across the country, activists took a direct approach. Protesters flooded the streets of Halifax, Ottawa, Winnipeg, Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver, Victoria and other cities in Canada. Initially, the idea of mass gatherings in a pandemic seems alarming. Still, after a summer (and more) of Black Lives Matter demonstrations, many scientists have confirmed that protests, unlike indoor parties, for example, are not super-spreader events. After all, those demanding justice for Black and Indigenous lives are likely also those who wear masks and take social distancing rules seriously. In this climate, a hundreds-strong protest is all the more poignant.
Meanwhile, numerous First Nations governing bodies issued letters of support. “The fact that the RCMP stand by while their [a Mi’kmaq] lobster pound burns, and assaults occur, is absolutely shocking and disturbing, and is an example of the systemic racism that plagues this country and the so-called justice system,” Grand Chief Stewart Phillip said in a statement from the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs, based several thousand miles away of the west coast.
Individual nations also offered strongly-worded letters in solidarity. “It’s beyond time for Canada to step up to the plate and fix this problem,” the Cree Nation of Eeyou Istchee remarked in their official statement.
For the Mi’kmaq, the fight continues. This time of year usually brings “dumping day” — the day when lobster fishers drop trays into the ocean to begin a new catching season. But as Sipekne’katik First Nation Chief Mike Sack announced at the end of October, his band will not participate. The Mi’kmaw fishers are “terrified all the way around,” he told Global News. In an already dangerous fishing environment — the 2019 dumping day event was postponed due to strong winds — the possibility of racist violence from commercial fishers presents an additional threat.
While on the surface the settler aggression is seemingly limited to the commercial fisheries’ desire to make a profit from lobster, much deeper is the reality that approaching fishing through the lens of capitalism is deeply problematic to begin with.
“The earth is alive; she is our Mother; she gives us life. How much a year is that worth?” asks land defender and activist Karl Dockstader. Dockstader runs the podcast One Dish, One Mic, a platform he uses to uplift stories of Indigenous resilience. “Assigning a monetary value to water, land and air is a very Western idea,” he says.
Respecting the Mi’kmaq’s right to a moderate livelihood is not only about Indigenous economic survival. It is about decolonizing the settler colonial view of the land and waters as something to pillage and exploit. When it comes to activism in support of the Mi’kmaw fishers, there is no shortage of inspiration. This community has been resisting settler colonial violence for centuries — all while conserving their bioregion’s ecosystem and generously offering teachings on sacred relationships with the land.
IN A SURPRISING AND HISTORIC TURN OF EVENTS, a coalition of Mi’kmaq First Nations is teaming up with Premium Brands Holdings Corp. to strike a $1-billion deal to purchase Atlantic Canada’s largest wild seafood company, Clearwater Seafoods Inc. The deal will make the Mi’kmaq communities 50 per cent owners in Clearwater and also give the First Nations ownership of all of the company’s fishing licenses, drastically equalizing Indigenous and non-Indigenous fishers’ access to lobster fishing.
Cicely Belle Blain
Editorial Director (they/them)
Cicely Belle is a Black, queer writer, activist and anti-racism consultant originally from London, UK. They are the founder and CEO of Cicely Blain Consulting, a social justice informed equity and inclusion consulting company based in Vancouver, BC where they work with clients across six continents to enhance compassion, respect and a commitment to anti-oppression in a diversity of industries.
As a founder and former organizer of Black Lives Matter Vancouver, Cicely Belle is passionate about liberation work, systems change and radical empathy for a better world. In 2018 and 2020, they were listed as one of Vancouver’s 50 most powerful people and in 2019, as one of BC Business’s 30under30. They are the author of Burning Sugar and an instructor of Executive Leadership at Simon Fraser University.