40 years after Listuguj salmon raids, Mi'kmaw community is asserting control over ancestral fishing rights

The Mi'kmaw community of Listuguj, in the Gaspé, is marking 40 years since provincial police raided the reserve, arresting and injuring salmon fishermen, which ultimately led to a redefinition of fishing conservation policies for the First Nation.

Police intervention on June 11, 1981, left scars on community but led to historic First Nations’ rulings

Mi'kmaq fishermen in Listuguj took part in the annual Migwite'tm commemoration on Friday, June 11, 2021, marking 40 years since police raided the community to stop salmon fishing. (Isabelle Larose/Radio-Canada)

Forty years after hundreds of provincial police officers descended on their community, arresting and injuring dozens of fishermen under the order of Premier René Lévesque, Mi'kmaw fishermen from Listuguj, Que., can now head out on the Restigouche River with the knowledge the laws are on their side.

"We can now exercise our fishing rights," said fisherman and former chief Scott Martin. "Each year, we go out to fish on the first Wednesday of June — the tradition is to share the first catches with our family and friends."

Like every year on June 11, the community closed its government offices on Friday to allow people to gather for Migwite'tm, an annual event called "We Remember." A march led the crowd from the local wharf toward the community's powwow grounds.

Scott Martin has been fishing salmon on the Restigoucher River for more than 40 years. (Isabelle Larose/Radio-Canada)

Chief Darcy Gray says the goal isn't to only reflect on the violence that shook the community that day but also to talk about what has happened since.

"We need to continue to fish and continue fighting for our rights," said Gray.

500 police officers stormed community

The morning of June 11, 1981, Allison Metallic, a newly elected band council member, was cleaning his fishing nets on the wharf when he heard a sound.

"I looked up in the air, and right above my head there was a helicopter." More choppers arrived as boats sped up the Restigouche River "from either side," said Metallic.

"We were stormed by 500 provincial police officers and fishery officers who wanted us to stop fishing," said Metallic, whose father Alphonse Metallic was chief at the time.

"My father had received a phone call from René Lévesque who told him 'You have 36 hours to get your nets out of the water, or else you will suffer'," recalled Allison Metallic. 

Lévesque had sent the ultimatum to Listuguj fishermen to stop fishing because the province was seeing a decline in fishing stocks, following decades of commercial fishing on the Restigouche River and on Chaleur Bay.

Despite the government's warning, some Mi'kmaw fishermen refused to remove their nets based on the Peace and Friendships Treaties signed in 1760-61 with the British government.

The landmark Marshall decision of 1999 recognized that those treaties affirmed the rights of the Mi'kmaw "to provide for their own sustenance by taking the products of their hunting, fishing and gathering activities, and trading them in the pursuit of a 'moderate livelihood.'"

"It's a tradition for us to fish," said Frank Methot, a retired salmon fisherman. "We are Mi'kmaw and we have the right to fish — but the government clearly didn't want us to."

The Sûreté du Québec police officers blocked the entrances to the town and arrested a dozen people that day.

Fishing equipment was destroyed and confiscated. Houses were searched.

Mike Isaac was 19. His father was out on the water and asked him to bring their vehicle to the wharf to get the boat out of the water.

Officers were lined up along the pier, Isaac said, "and as I'm walking through, along with others, they were trying to entice us to react, so they'd have an excuse to arrest me," said Isaac, who later became a police officer himself.

Now an education consultant, Isaac said the events were "traumatic" for the community, but that they also laid the groundwork for "opportunities to overcome" that trauma, "and to remember what took place and move forward."

New conservation plan

The way forward, Isaac said, was establishing a salmon management plan "to ensure the proper stewardship of this resource."

"We needed to demonstrate to the government that we're capable, as we always have been, to monitor and take care of the resources so that they'll be there for generations to come."

In the days that followed the June 11 raids — once police forces had left the area — Mi'kmaw fishermen went back out on the water.

Former Chief Allison Metallic says the events of 1981 marked a turning point for the recognition of ancestral rights of the Listuguj Miꞌgmaq First Nation. (Isabelle Larose/Radio-Canada)

"The time it took to fix our nets, we were ready to challenge their laws once more," said Allison Metallic.

On June 20, police officers returned.

But this time, a human shield of Mi'kmaw residents — and members of other First Nations — stood in their way.

Frank Methot, who was keeping an eye on his boat and nets, said police started shooting rubber bullets from the interprovincial bridge to New Brunswick, that overlooks the wharf. 

"It really hurt — I had to run away because they were shooting tear gas," said Methot.

Police were unable to re-enter the reserve and eventually left. It took nearly a year before the band council reached an agreement with the Quebec government.

Retired fisherman Frank Methot said he was hit by rubber bullets from police shooters perched on top of the J. C. Van Horne Bridge interprovincial bridge, during the second police intervention on June 20, 1981. (Isabelle Larose/Radio-Canada)

Historic agreement comes 40 years after raids

"At last, we have managed to sign an agreement on solid foundations," said the minister of recreation, hunting and fishing, Lucien Lessard, of the deal signed on March 29, 1982.

Fishing quotas were imposed on Mi'kmaw fishermen, while the province agreed to hire and train Mi'kmaw wildlife conservation officers.

The agreement didn't hold. Quotas were diminished and the band council adopted its own fishing law in 1993.

"We were tired of Quebec telling us what to do and seeing the government change the rules every year," said Wendell Metallic, a Listuguj band councillor since 1992 — even if it meant losing $400,000 in annual funding.

Mi'kmaw Rangers took on the role of conservation officers to enforce quotas and promote education.

Fishermen were limited to casting their nets five nights a week, from Wednesday to Monday, from the first Wednesday of the month of June to July 26.

To this day, certains areas of the Restigouche River are off limits and considered "special protection zones."

"In all the consultations that led to this law, conservation was always the priority," said Metallic.

Rangers from the Listuguj Miꞌgmaq First Nation now patrol the waters and ensure fish conservation plans are respected. (Isabelle Larose/Radio-Canada)

Carole-Anne Gillis is the scientific director of the Gespe'gewag Mi'gmaq Resource Council (GMRC), a non-profit that works with Listuguj and other Mi'kmaw communities in New Brunswick to monitor salmon stocks. She says the model laid out in the Listuguj Miꞌgmaq First Nation's Fishing Law is sustainable.

"Fishing is allowed during five out of 14 tides, so there is ample time for salmon runs," said Gillis. 

The Marshall agreement of 1999 reaffirmed the rights of Mi'kmaw fishermen, after the Supreme Court of Canada recognized that Donald Marshall Jr, a Mi'kmaw fisherman from Nova Scotia, had the right to fish and sell eel without a permit.

In took until 2021, 40 years after the salmon raids, for the federal government to reach a fisheries agreement with Listuguj, upholding the treaty right to harvest and sell fish in pursuit of a livelihood.

Darcy Gray said of the agreement "it is not the end by any means, but just the start of something that could be very significant for us as a community."

Based on a report by Radio-Canada reporter Isabelle Larose, with files from Quebec AM