Close to 500 people gathered at the waterfront in Halifax on Saturday morning in solidarity with Sipekne’katik First Nation, the Mi’kmaw community that launched its fishery in St. Marys Bay more than week ago.
“I’m very humbled by all the people that are here and the support that came from all over Mi’kma’ki was just overwhelming,” said Dorene Bernard, a grassroots grandmother and water protector. “And we thank everyone that’s standing with us as we assert our rights here in Mi’kma’ki.”
Twenty-one years after a Supreme Court of Canada ruling in the case of Donald Marshall Jr., Sipekne’katik First Nation launched what the band calls a self-regulated lobster fishery at a wharf in Saulnierville, N.S., on Sept. 17.
The Marshall decision affirmed the Mi’kmaw right to earn a “moderate livelihood” from fishing. The court later said the federal government could regulate the Mi’kmaw fishery, but had to justify any restrictions it placed on it.
Many commercial lobster fishers say they consider the new Sipekne’katik fishery in St. Marys Bay illegal and worry that catching lobster outside the mandated season, particularly during the summer spawning period, will negatively impact stocks.
Sipekne’katik officials have said the fishery was launched after the band was unable to find common ground with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans on the definition of moderate livelihood.
They argue the amount of lobster that will be harvested and sold is tiny compared to what is caught during the commercial season that begins in late November and runs until the end of May.
Bernard said she thinks a lack of education is the cause of much of the animosity toward the Mi’kmaw fishers. She said people need to familiarize themselves with treaties and Indigenous history.
The event started with a prayer and the Mi’kmaw honour song. That was followed by speeches and songs from various Mi’kmaw communities from throughout the province.
People carried the Mi’kmaw flag and signs that read, “Respect the treaties” and, “We are all treaty people.”
Speakers at the event said every display of solidarity from non-Indigenous community members is another step toward reconciliation.
Michelle Paul, who described herself as a Mi’kmaw rights holder, said it was important for her to attend to “show the world that we are still here.”
She said the large crowd at the waterfront shows there are many people who want to be on “the right side of history.”
“It’s a birthright for us to have access to our waters, to feed ourselves and to not just survive, but thrive,” she said.