Nova Scotia·Point of View

As a fishing dispute in N.S. sees no swift end, it wasn't always this way

The fishery has always been essential to the inhabitants of what is known today as Nova Scotia, but a conflict has erupted over fishing rights. Amid the dispute, it's easy to forget peaceful and mutually beneficial coexistence is possible because it was once the norm here.

'Peaceful and mutually beneficial coexistence is possible because it was once the norm here'

These men are on opposite sides of the dispute over the Mi’kmaw lobster fishery. On the left, a commercial fisherman with an Acadian flag, on the right, a supporter of Sipekne’katik’s new rights-based fishery, holding the Mi’kmaw flag, on Sept. 19, 2020. (Taryn Grant/CBC)

The fishery has always been essential to the inhabitants of what is known today as Nova Scotia, but a conflict has erupted over who benefits from the fishery, how much, and when.

Ineffective governments have exacerbated the situation, no doubt, but historical amnesia has equally been a great abetter of ill feeling and a sower of confusion. Looking back might light part of the way toward a solution.

We should begin with an observation that might seem counterintuitive in the present climate: contact and colonization were not at once and always an unmitigated disaster.

This is not in any way to minimize the disaster it became for Indigenous people, or to excuse the further delay of remedy and reconciliation, but rather to point out what should be a fundamental lesson of our shared history: peaceful and mutually beneficial coexistence is possible because it was once the norm here.

Writer Sieur de Dièreville saw it with his own eyes in 1699 when, with his stomach still heaving from prolonged seasickness, his ship, the Royalle Paix, dropped anchor at Port-Royal, now Annapolis Royal, N.S. This was the administrative capital of the French colony of Acadie and the cradle of the Acadian people.

An Indigenous fishing weir in B.C. is shown in this 1889 photo. In Nova Scotia, Acadians learned how to make fishing weirs from the Mi'kmaq. (George M. Dawson / Geological Survey of Canada / Library and Archives Canada / e011206920-v8)

When Dièreville arrived, the sturdy immigrants had already been transforming the tidal marshes into fertile farms for over 60 years with their ingenious system of dikes and aboiteaux.

Although Acadian land forming is much celebrated today, the French inhabitants did not subsist on European-style agriculture alone.

The importance of brush weirs

Dièreville saw a distinctive and productive fishery at Port-Royal based on brush weirs constructed at the mouths of streams and rivers that emptied into the sea. Fish passing over or around the weirs with the flood tide found themselves trapped on the ebb.

The brush weir was a Mi'kmaw technology. Coincidentally (or perhaps not), almost a century earlier Samuel de Champlain and his people had built their Port-Royal Habitation downriver at a place the Mi'kmaq called Nme'juaqnek — "the place of bountiful fish" — and the early French fur traders observed the Mi'kmaw weir fishery in action up and down the river. The Indigenous inhabitants evidently shared the craft — as well as rights to the fish — with the colonists.

Acadians adopted Mi'kmaw words and French writers in this period refer to the brush fish traps as "negeagans," or "niraguians." The concept was significant enough to become a recurring Acadian place name. For example, one of the ancient Acadian hamlets on the Annapolis River was called "The Grand Negegan."

In some ways, the brush weir might be a more fitting metaphor of the Acadian experience than the beloved aboiteau, the lynchpin of diking technology.

A Mi'kmaw family is shown with their chief in Nova Scotia in this 1801 painting. (Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1990-497-7)

Dièreville wrote that "the Settlers derive a great aid to existence" from their weirs, often catching more fish than they could eat.

Half a century later, informants reported that shad caught in weirs contributed significantly to Acadian diets in the Minas Basin communities, particularly when the spring fish runs brought welcome relief from the long and confining winters.

A symbol of respect, mutual support

More importantly, the weir signifies the culture of respect and mutual support that existed between the Mi'kmaq and the newcomers. Even more than the aboiteau, it is this relationship that made Acadie viable. And in the context of North American colonial history, such alliances between Indigenous people and Europeans immigrating to their territory were rare.

One sees evidence of this co-operative culture frequently in first-hand accounts of life in those times, as in the sharing of tools and technology (Acadian women were said to be particularly expert handlers of birchbark canoes), styles of dress, and even intermarriage.

The beautiful voices of Mi'kmaw singers during vespers and mass in the parish church at Port-Royal left Dièreville spellbound. People in local communities built this shared culture, and the peace it created largely prevailed until the intrusion of imperial interests in the mid-18th century inflicted death and dispossession on Acadians and Mi'kmaq alike.

The Mi'kmaq brought the same spirit to the treaties of peace and friendship negotiated with the British Crown in the 18th century. Crucially, these agreements do not surrender territory but provide a framework for continuing the pattern of sharing demonstrated by the Acadian model. They guarantee the Mi'kmaq access to the fishery, as always, a right since affirmed by the Supreme Court of Canada in 1999.

RCMP officers position themselves between Mi'kmaw and commercial fishers on the Saulnierville wharf on Sept. 20, 2020. (Jeorge Sadi/CBC)

Today's weir fishery in Nova Scotia is a shadow of its former self. The fish stocks are decimated, not by the harvests of fishing families, but by the damming and poisoning of rivers in the 19th century by unregulated industry.

The modest Mi'kmaw lobster fishery, which currently involves seven licences of 50 traps each, is a fraction of the 979 inshore lobster licenses available in the fishing area that covers part of southwestern Nova Scotia known as LFA 34. DFO says fishery stocks remain healthy.

There is enough ugliness in our history to supply a feast of distrust and nourish future generations on suspicion and hostility. And to whose benefit? It is important now to recognize that our inheritance includes a deep tradition of sharing and mutual support based on fairness and trust. This tells us that a better way is possible because it has been done before.

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About the Author

Jonathan Fowler teaches in the Anthropology Department at Saint Mary’s University. He posts regular updates on archaeological research in Nova Scotia at facebook.com/archaeologyacadie

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