Nova Scotia

Mi'kmaw First Nation planning 'hundreds' of legal suits amid opposition to fishery

The Sipekne'katik First Nation has filed a court challenge against the province of Nova Scotia, with "hundreds" of lawsuits planned against other fishers, the federal government and the RCMP.

'I think legal action will hurt some of their pockets and maybe it puts a stop to it,' says Chief Mike Sack

Chief Mike Sack of the Sipekne'katik First Nation. (Nic Meloney/CBC)

A Mi'kmaw First Nation that has received violent opposition to its moderate livelihood lobster fishery has launched a constitutional challenge against the province of Nova Scotia, with "hundreds" of lawsuits planned against other fishermen, the federal government and the RCMP.

Ron Pink, a lawyer for the Sipekne'katik First Nation, joined Chief Mike Sack on Thursday to provide an update on the band's legal plans.

"There's a large number of legal actions which are on the plate, which we intend to follow up on because we are not going to allow this discrimination and bully tactics by the federal government and their agencies," Pink told reporters.

"It simply continues to allow the white community to have the Aboriginal community as second-class citizens in this province, in this nation, and that's just not acceptable. We're not going to put up with it anymore, and we're going to stand our ground."

Pink said Sipekne'katik gave notice in mid-October of a constitutional challenge against the province's fish buyers' licensing and enforcement regulations.

That legislation prevents First Nations from selling livelihood lobster to buyers, but there's no jurisdiction to do so, Pink said.

"If we can't sell because your law says no one can buy from us, that interferes with our moderate livelihood which is our treaty right and our constitutional right," he said.

Premier Stephen McNeil has said the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans must define moderate livelihood before the province can examine its own rules for fish buyers.

But Pink said McNeil can "certainly" change the provincial law any time.

"That's just the premier being the premier, not wanting to make a decision, not wanting to interfere. It's political," he said, adding the law should be struck down as it relates to the moderate livelihood fishery.

Sipekne'katik First Nation fishing boats tied up at Saulnierville wharf on Sept. 22, 2020. (Robert Short/CBC)

The Sipekne'katik fishery, on Nova Scotia's southwest coast in St. Marys Bay, launched nearly two months ago on Sept.17. 

It has faced tense and sometimes violent opposition by non-Indigenous commercial fishermen, including the swarming of two lobster facilities storing Mi'kmaw catches. The band has alleged hundreds of traps belonging to its members have been stolen, damaged or destroyed by commercial fishermen.

Many commercial fishermen argue the Sipekne'katik fishery will hurt lobster stocks if it falls outside of the federally regulated season.

The First Nation won a court injunction in October to end blockades, interference and threats against community members involved in the fishery. Pink said Thursday an application to extend that injunction will be filed next month.

Sack said his community is disheartened that police have laid charges in only two incidents. A Digby County man was charged after an assault on Sack in October, while a Yarmouth County man faces an arson charge after a van was set on fire outside a lobster facility in New Edinburgh that same month.

Pink said lawsuits are planned against the RCMP, as well as specific members, for what they "did and did not do" as tensions flared.

Halifax lawyer Ron Pink speaks to media on Nov.12, 2020, about the lawsuits he and a legal team are filing on behalf of the Sipekne'katik First Nation around the moderate livelihood fishery. (CBC)

He said legal action is also being considered against DFO, as well as fish buyers and businesses that have refused to deal with Sipekne'katik. Human rights complaints could also be filed based on racial discrimination. 

As well, Pink said individual commercial fishermen could be targeted for damages in lawsuits claiming assault, battery, interference with a livelihood, and intimidation related to alleged incidents on the water, Pink said.

There is a legal team of six lawyers working on the lawsuits, which Sack said are in the "hundreds."

Sipekne'katik First Nation issued licences and lobster trap tags to 7 Mi’kmaw harvesters in September under the new Mi'kmaw-regulated fishery. (Nic Meloney/CBC)

Some actions will be filed in December, including complaints against RCMP members, while others are "well on the way" to filing, Pink said.  

When asked if legal action could ramp up tensions, Sack replied: "Not at all."

"If charges were laid right off the get-go, we wouldn't be where we're today. So I think legal action will hurt some of their pockets and maybe it puts a stop to it, and they recognize what we have going on is lawful and respect that," Sack said.

The First Nation is expected to meet with DFO again on Friday to discuss the livelihood fishery management plan, which Sack said they are making progress on. 

He said it's now a matter of DFO accepting that Sipekne'katik will be the one issuing its own licences.

With files from Taryn Grant