Nova Scotia

Trudeau defends federal response as threats escalate over Mi'kmaw fishery in Nova Scotia

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau today defended the federal government's response to an escalating standoff over a Mi'kmaw fishery in Nova Scotia, saying Ottawa has been "extremely active" in trying to resolve the situation.

Chief of Sipekne'katik First Nation urged Trudeau to step in

Chief Mike Sack said Friday that commercial fishermen were cutting traps and urged members of Sipekne'katik to get off the water. (Eric Woolliscroft/CBC)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau today defended the federal government's response to an escalating standoff over a Mi'kmaw fishery in Nova Scotia, saying Ottawa has been "extremely active" in trying to resolve the situation.

Speaking to reporters, he called for an end to the violence and harassment that has been on the rise over the past week in several fishing communities in the southwestern part of the province.

"We are expecting the RCMP and police services to do their jobs and keep people safe," Trudeau said. 

"I think there's been some concern that that hasn't been done well enough and that's certainly something we will be looking at very closely."

On Thursday, Mike Sack, the chief of the Sipekne'katik First Nation, urged Trudeau to step in and make sure those involved in the violence are prosecuted.

On Tuesday night, two facilities storing lobster caught by Mi'kmaw fishermen were raided and vandalized by a mob of hundreds of non-Indigenous commercial fishermen. The raids in the fishing communities of New Edinburgh and Middle West Pubnico are part of a series of incidents connected to the fight over a "moderate livelihood" lobster fishery that was launched by the Sipekne'katik First Nation in September.

On Friday, Sack also warned Sipekne'katik fishers about commercial fishermen "taking matters into their own hands" and urged members of the community to get off the water.

He told reporters that several traps belonging to Mi'kmaw fishermen have been cut and roughly three boats belonging to band members were out on the water in St. Marys Bay.

"We're trying everything we can to make sure that they're safe, but I can't blame them for wanting to go out and protect what is theirs," Sack said.

Chief Mike Sack said Friday that commercial fishing boats were on their way to haul Mi'kmaw fishermen's gear on Friday morning. (CBC)

Stuart Knockwood, an official with Sipekne'katik First Nation, said some Mi'kmaw fishermen went out on the water Friday to retrieve their gear, fearing it would be tampered with.

Knockwood went on out on the water himself to look for evidence of interference with the Mi'kmaw fishing operation. He said he came back with a buoy that had been sliced open and some small pieces of fishing line that had been cut.

"The rest of the line is at the bottom of the water," he said.

Knockwood said he also took photos of two fishing vessels in the area, although he doesn't know for sure if they were the culprits. He said the band will pass along the information to the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans and the RCMP in the hopes that they'll investigate and lay any appropriate charges.

Sack said while he had a promising conversation with federal Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan on Thursday, the lack of action by DFO to protect Mi'kmaw fishermen could undermine any progress made.

"Unfortunately, if DFO doesn't act and remove commercial fishermen from the water from interfering with our rights, the conversation will end," he said. "We're not going to continue to talk to move forward if they're not willing to protect us and to uphold our treaty right."

Lobster for sale

In Halifax, Sipekne'katik band member Cheryl Maloney sold about 50 kilograms of Mi'kmaw-harvested lobster on the sidewalk Friday outside Province House — a location she chose because she said it was time for the provincial government to step in to help resolve the dispute.

Since the launch of Sipekne'katik's moderate livelihood fishery, Premier Stephen McNeil has said the issue falls exclusively under federal jurisdiction. Maloney, however, argues the province needs to amend a provincial regulation that says it's only legal to buy fish caught by someone with a federal commercial licence.

Maloney sold out in about an hour, with one woman paying $60 for a single lobster as a show of support.

Sack, however, said he did not sanction the sale, fearing it might hamper or reverse the fishery's progress.

'This community is out of hand'

The vice-president of a fishermen's union in Nova Scotia stepped down Friday, citing fears for his family's safety as threats from some non-Indigenous fishermen opposed to a self-regulated Mi'kmaw lobster fishery continue to escalate.

Joel Comeau, a former member of the Local 9 of the Maritime Fishermen's Union, was supposed to meet with Sack on Friday morning but abruptly cancelled the meeting.

Joel Comeau said Friday that he's stepping down from his position with Local 9 of the Maritime Fishermen's Union after four years. (Olivier Lefebvre)

Comeau said he's received "a lot of flak from my people and a lot of intimidation" over his willingness to work with Sack to find a way forward.

"I've been followed right to my house with my family in the truck at seven o'clock in the morning and people with tinted windows sitting across my driveway, you know, intimidating me and some language that I probably can't use on the air," Comeau told CBC's Maritime Noon Friday. 

He said one of his friends and his friend's young daughter had to be escorted out of a restaurant by police on Thursday.

"This community is out of hand. This community feels unsafe," said Comeau.

This screenshot from a video posted to Facebook shows a man grabbing and shoving Chief Mike Sack during an altercation this week. (Facebook)

Commercial fishermen are angry the fishery is operating outside the federally mandated commercial season, while the Mi'kmaq say they're simply exercising their treaty rights and that their small-scale fishery would not have a negative effect on lobster stocks.

Even after the events of this week, Comeau and Sack shared a message of calm and committed to sitting down together to talk.

Their exchange about the need for commercial and Mi'kmaw fishermen to work together was caught on video Wednesday.

Sack said he has a lot of respect for Comeau and was disappointed to hear that he'd resigned.

"For them to turn on their own people like that, it should be a clear indication for Canada what we're going through, and we're outsiders so it's 10 times worse for us," Sack said.

Federal fisheries minister responds to raids on N.S. lobster pounds

2 years ago
Duration 6:30
Bernadette Jordan says there is no need for violence, and described what happened this week as "disgusting."

Comeau said he presented a woven basket with tobacco to an elder at the Saulnierville Wharf on Treaty Day and was looking forward to continuing his conversation with Sack.

"It is a shame that it's not going to happen, and the fishermen felt that I was betraying them and that I was going behind their backs," he said.

He said he places the blame for what's happening in southwest Nova Scotia squarely on Jordan's shoulders and the inaction of DFO officials.

Jordan said Thursday she is in negotiations with the Sipekne'katik First Nation and talking to commercial fishermen.

Comeau said that while commercial fishermen will have to find someone else to fight on their behalf, he also understands their anger and knows where it's coming from.

"There's no divide. The fishermen are united. The coalition is united," he said. "The divide is with me and my family and my family is number one, so you're not able to twist this to be blaming anybody. Every organization is working 120 per cent on this file. Everybody wants answers."

With files from CBC's Maritime Noon, Olivier Lefebvre, Kayla Hounsell and Jack Julian