Solidarity with Mi’kmaq struggle for treaty right to fish

By Chris Frazer

In mid-September, the Sipekne’katik Mi’kmaq First Nation launched its own fishery and issued seven licenses to trap lobster in the waters off the southern shore of Nova Scotia, in Mi’kma’ki (the traditional territories of the Miꞌkmaq people). This decision came after 268 years of federal government refusal to honour the 1752 Treaty of Peace and Friendship, which guaranteed the Mi’kmaq right to earn a “moderate livelihood” from hunting and fishing. It is also 21 years after the Supreme Court of Canada issued a decision that affirmed this treaty right, in the case of Donald Marshall Jr., who had been arrested and charged with illegal fishing of eels.

The Mi’kmaq decision to launch their own fishery is an assertion of their treaty rights in the face of government inaction. It is also a very modest enterprise, licensing a total of 350 lobster traps. However, the launch has triggered opposition from commercial fishers and other settlers who have claimed that the Mi’kmaq fishery is ‘illegal’, constitutes ‘poaching’ and poses a threat to lobster conservation.

The Mi’kmaq fishers set their lobster traps on September 17 but were met with settler violence at the entrance of St. Mary’s Bay in Saulnierville, Digby County, Nova Scotia. At least 60 commercial fishing vessels blockaded the bay and then, over the next few days, proceeded to cut away the buoys marking lobster traps, stealing many traps and attacking Mi’kmaq boats with flares, live rounds of ammunition and attempts to ram and sink the vessels.

Mi’kmaq communities across Mi’kma’ki, along with settler allies, have mobilized to support the fishers at the docks and in locations across the region. This was critical in view of the absence of the RCMP and officials from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO); their initial refusal to aid the Mi’kmaq fishers has emboldened the racist opposition by settlers and can only be seen as a deliberate attempt by the RCMP and DFO to undermine the Mi’kmaq launch of their own fishery.

The Mi’kmaq have a clear legal right, embedded in treaty, to earn a moderate livelihood by fishing. The opposition by settler fishers is wide of the target and ludicrous. There is no poaching and no evidence that the Mi’kmaq fishery will create a sustainability issue. If anything, that threat is emerging from the settler corporate monopoly on lobster fishing.

Mi’kmaq communities say that their fishery will be used to feed their own communities and at present their seven licenses and 350 traps are a drop in the bucket compared to the settler licenses in Southwest Nova Scotia. These number 1500 at 300-350 traps each, or about 487,500 lobster traps in total.

The Mi’kmaq fishery also pales in comparison to the practices of the Clearwater corporate group, which not only receives a quota from the DFO, but engages in practices that directly undermine sustainability.

Clearwater is the largest producer of shellfish in North America and has exclusive rights to trap lobster in the biggest Lobster Fishing Area off Nova Scotia (LFA 41). In addition, the DFO allows Clearwater to operate year-round and allows a quota of 720 tonnes of lobster. Despite the largesse of the settler state, Clearwater is still unsatisfied and constantly pushes and crosses the boundaries of sustainable fishing. In January 2019, three Clearwater companies were charged with “gross violations” of DFO regulations.

Only one Clearwater company was actually convicted, while the other two had charges dropped. The convicted Clearwater firm is CS ManPar, which was found to have stored 3800 lobster traps on the ocean floor for two months in 2017. Of these unbaited traps, 3400 were found to have 6,804 kg of lobster. This practice not only traps lobster but also other marine life, which inevitably die in the traps.

This is an extraordinarily profitably venture for the owner of Clearwater, John Risley of Halifax, who has amassed a personal net worth of $1.21 billion. If settlers wish to direct their anger and opposition at a target, it should be Risley and Clearwater.

Instead, Clearwater and other corporate interests are busy stoking the fires of racism and greed among settler fishers, directing their opposition away from the corporate criminals, and towards the Mi’kmaq fishery.

One particularly vile example of this corporate hate-mongering was a recent Facebook diatribe by Christina Mayer-Murphy, married into the family that owns Maritime Lobster and the Maritime Oyster Company. Mayer-Murphy works as the government liaison with the parent company R & K Murphy Enterprises. As the racist blockade took shape at Saulnierville, Mayer-Murphy egged on settler fishers by saying that, “I want [Mi’kmaq] to know that you are selfish, non-preserving, clearly uneducated, you don’t care about our oceans, and any of our children…The people who feel they had their ‘land stolen’ need to give up that mentality…It’s just an excuse to keep being advantageous and lazy.”

The enemy of a healthy fishery is not the Mi’kmaq, but corporate profiteers like Mayer-Murphy and Risley who are bent on depleting this resource and resisting Mi’kmaq treaty rights. The Mi’kmaq fishery deserves our full support, while the corporate fishery should be shut down.

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