Hundreds of people gathered in Halifax on Sunday afternoon to show their support for Sipekne’katik fishers and their “moderate livelihood” lobster fishery in the wake of ongoing tensions in the southwestern part of Nova Scotia.
People carrying signs reading “We see through your racism” and “All eyes on Mi’kma’ki” stood together in Grand Parade, a downtown square, cheering the passionate speeches being made on the steps of city hall.
“Our nation is in danger,” said Kyra Gilbert, a young Mi’kmaw woman, to loud cheers.
She questioned why staff with the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans, who can control what people do on the water, have not stepped in to protect Mi’kmaw fishers.
“I should be able to live my life as a young lady, but instead I’m stuck here fighting for my treaties and for what was, and is, ours,” Gilbert said.
The rally took place a day after a fire broke out in Middle West Pubnico, at one of two facilities vandalized by commercial fishermen earlier this week.
Police have called the fire suspicious and said a man is in hospital with life-threatening injuries believed to be related to the blaze.
Tensions have been simmering for weeks in the province’s southwest, sparked by the launch of the Mi’kmaw fishery outside the federally mandated commercial season — 21 years after the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in the case of Donald Marshall Jr.
The landmark 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 must justify any restrictions it placed on it.
Mi’kmaw women who have been on the front lines during recent violence over fishing rights in Digby and Saulnierville spoke at the rally about the toll it’s taken on the community and their disgust and disappointment with the RCMP response.
Eleanor Michael of Sipekne’katik First Nation told the crowd about waking up every day worried about her nephew, who is a captain on one of the lobster boats currently fishing for a “moderate livelihood.”
He told Michael and their family members to stay away from the Digby area, she said, because he can’t focus on what he’s doing there while worrying that they might also get hurt.
“I check media every morning…. That’s what I’m scared of, is to wake up and hear something happened,” Michael said in an interview after her speech.
She said it was disheartening to see non-Indigenous fishermen cutting trap lines and taking Mi’kmaw lobster out of the pounds earlier in this week, and it directly impacts the fisher’s community and families.
“Every time a commercial fisherman thinks it’s his entitlement to take something from the Sipekne’katik band, he’s taking out of the mouths of children,” she said.
Jenna Chisholm, a Mi’kmaw woman from Millbrook First Nation, told the crowd that it’s up to every person at the rally to keep fighting for treaty rights and the respect Indigenous fishers and people deserve.
She also sent well wishes to the front-line fishers and Mi’kmaw community members defending the fishery and continuing to call on the federal government, and country, to let them know that “we will not sit back.”
“We will not let this happen. We have been here for thousands of years, this is our land,” Chisholm said.
When he looked out at crowd, Mi’kmaw elder Billy Lewis said he was surprised to see just how many people were there, adding it shows just how important the fishing dispute is.
No matter where someone is from, he said, we know “what’s right and wrong.”
Tensions over fishing rights
More RCMP officers arrived in the disputed area on Sunday, including an emergency response team, a critical incident command team and officers from Prince Edward Island who are trained in de-escalation and crowd control.
Many commercial lobster fishermen 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 amount of lobster that will be harvested and sold is tiny compared with what’s caught during the commercial season, which begins in late November and runs until the end of May.