The Lobster Attacks Striking at Canada’s Friendly Image - OZY | A Modern Media Company
Members of the Sipekne'katik First Nation head from the wharf in Saulnierville, Nova Scotia, after launching a self-regulated fishery.
SourceAndrew Vaughan/AP

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

A fishery set up by the Mi’kmaq First Nation has sparked violence against Canada's Indigenous people, lifting the lid on a darker side to the country otherwise seen as universally friendly.

By Tom Taylor

  • A new lobster fishery established by the Mi’kmaq First Nation has led to violent attacks against community members.
  • Critics say they’re worried about excessive fishing, but experts say those concerns are unwarranted given the size of the fishery.
  • The attacks have sparked protests in other parts of Canada, reigniting a broader debate over racism in the country.

On a late-September morning, Levi Paul took his boat out into St. Mary’s Bay, off the coast of southwestern Nova Scotia, in search of lobster. What started out as a routine day for the fisherman and his colleagues — members of the Mi’kmaq First Nation — would become anything but, as their boat was charged by a much larger vessel crewed by non-Indigenous, commercial fishers. “It was like a big f**king house coming right at us,” he recounts. “They were about a foot away from ramming us.”

“After they missed us, they were giving us the finger, yelling shit off the boat to us, making threats,” Paul adds. “It was a scary situation.” Unfortunately, it wasn’t an isolated incident in Miꞌkmaꞌki — the unceded Mi’kmaq territory now identified on most maps as Canada’s Atlantic provinces.

The Mi’kmaq have long faced racism from many of their non-Indigenous neighbors, but that racism has ramped up in recent weeks, and a lobster fishery is at the heart of the tensions, which have exploded into protests across the country. On Sept. 17, the Sipekne’katik First Nation — part of the Mi’kmaq First Nation — launched its own self-regulated lobster fishery, issuing seven lobster licenses that allowed for the deployment of 50 traps apiece.

Doing so was well within their rights under Canada’s Peace and Friendship Treaties, which protect their hunting, fishing, gathering and trading practices. Those rights were affirmed by the Supreme Court of Canada in a 1999 decision. Nonetheless, the Sipekne’katik lobster fishery received immediate blowback from non-Indigenous people in the region.

What followed was a procession of hateful attacks like the one Paul experienced. Racial slurs have been hurled at Sipekne’katik fishers. Many of their traps have been removed and vandalized. Several of them have been pelted with rocks and shot at with flare guns. One fisherman found his boat burned to a crisp one morning. A Mi’kmaq-owned lobster pound was vandalized by hundreds of non-Indigenous people, who set fire to a van outside the building and destroyed the lobster being held inside with paint thinner and PVC cement.

They pull out 100,000 pounds of lobster per season. They’re not worried about conservation.

Michael Sack, chief of the Sipekne’katik First Nation

Detractors of the Sipekne’katik First Nation’s lobster fishery cite conservation concerns — they argue it could lead to excessive fishing. But Sipekne’katik Chief Michael Sack, who was assaulted during a recent confrontation in Mi’kma’ki, points to racism, greed and poor education on treaty issues as more likely motivators for the opposition to his people’s fishery.  

“I think the biggest concern of many of them is that [with competition from the Sipekne’katik fishery], instead of making $500,000 this year, they’ll only make $400,000 or $450,000,” Sack says. “There’s a lot of fear.” Sack also suggested that if non-Indigenous fishermen are worried about conservation, they should start by examining the commercial fishery, not the small-scale Sipekne’katik fishery. “They pull out 100,000 pounds of lobster per season. They’re not worried about conservation,” he insists.

Canada Lobster Protest

Chiefs of the Mi’kmaq Grand Council join members of the Sipekne’katik First Nation on the wharf in Saulnierville, Nova Scotia, to bless the fleet before it launches a self-regulated fishery.

Source Andrew Vaughan/AP

Experts like Dr. Aaron MacNeil, Canada Research Chair in Fisheries Ecology and an associate professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax, agree that the scale of the Sipekne’katik fishery is not a threat to the area’s lobster stock. “The scale of the new Sipekne’katik fishery is just way too small to have a conservation effect, regardless of the season it’s happening in,” he says.

MacNeil also agrees that while Nova Scotia is a place of “bounty” in terms of lobster stocks, the commercial lobster fishery is probably where any future conservation issues will arise. “What Chief Sack has said, he’s right in that if there is a conservation concern, the biggest catches are happening in the non-Indigenous sector by far,” MacNeil adds.

Meanwhile the attacks on Mi’kmaq fishermen have sparked protests all over Canada, most notably in Halifax (the biggest city in Nova Scotia) and in capital Ottawa, where activists recently disrupted a public appearance from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. 

The Canadian government’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans has emphasized a “respectful and collaborative dialogue” as the way forward. But many Mi’kmaq are dissatisfied with the government’s response to the crisis. Paul claims that members of his community have been unfairly targeted by the police, having seemingly been identified as Indigenous by the dreamcatchers and sweetgrass hanging in their car windows or by the bumper stickers on the backs of their vehicles. “We’ve got RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) harassing the native guys around here,” Paul says. “Pulling guys over for no good reason.”

“You can’t say there’s no racism in Canada,” Sack affirms. “Anybody that thinks or says that is fooling themselves. Racism is alive and well. The majority of people don’t experience it, but anyone of color does. That needs to change.”

In September and early October, members of the Algonquin-Anishinabe Nation in Quebec attempted to enact their own moratorium on moose hunting, recognizing that the local moose population — one of their primary food sources — was at risk. The response they received mirrored what’s happening in Miꞌkmaꞌki. They were targeted with racism and threats of violence.

In late September, a 37-year-old mother named Joyce Echaquan, a member of the Atikamekw First Nation, filmed the final moments of her own life, which were spent being verbally abused by health care workers at a hospital in Quebec. In visible pain, she cried into the camera that she was being overmedicated and called for her husband, Carol Dubé, to come collect her. She died soon after.

Those incidents are only the tip of the iceberg.

Paul and Sack both concede that it’s a difficult time for Indigenous communities in Canada — yet they’re not budging. “It’s a real scary time to be native,” Paul says. “But I’ll tell you what, I’m proud to be native.”

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