Nova Scotia

'Stop criminalizing treaty rights': New AFN chief weighs in on Sipekne'katik fishery

The national chief of the Assembly of First Nations went to southwest Nova Scotia Thursday to denounce federal government enforcement actions on a Mi'kmaw lobster fishery.

RoseAnne Archibald visited southwest N.S. Thursday to denounce enforcement of the Mi'kmaw lobster fishery

RoseAnne Archibald, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, criticized DFO's enforcement Thursday of the Sipekne'katik treaty fishery. (Paul Poirier/CBC)

The national chief of the Assembly of First Nations went to southwest Nova Scotia on Thursday to denounce federal government enforcement actions on a Mi'kmaw lobster fishery.

RoseAnne Archibald was on a Zodiac boat and watched federal fishery vessels surround a Sipekne'katik fishing boat in St. Marys Bay and seize traps from it.

"What I witnessed was harassment by the DFO and intimidation," she said.

The band later issued a news release saying the seized traps were from a food, social and ceremonial fishery operating in compliance with DFO and community fishing plans. It said no reason was given for the seizure.

DFO confirmed Friday morning fishery officers seized 10 traps in St. Marys Bay on Thursday.

A statement from DFO spokesperson Lauren Sankey acknowledged there are Indigenous communities fishing under food, social and ceremonial licences in the area.

"However, no other lobster fishing in St. Marys Bay is currently authorized by DFO," the statement said.

Earlier Thursday, Archibald and Mi'kmaw chiefs gathered in a show of support for the Sipekne'katik band, which has launched a self-regulated treaty fishery in the area. 

A flotilla of boats took to the water Thursday to haul Sipekne'katik treaty fishery traps. (Paul Poirier/CBC)

"No more seizure of lobster gear," Archibald said. "That is taking food from the mouths of our children. That has to end. Stop criminalizing treaty rights."

The fishery is taking place when the commercial season in the area is closed.

The dispute pits the treaty right of the Mi'kmaq — as recognized by the Supreme Court of Canada to earn a moderate living from the fishery — against the government's right to regulate it, which has also been recognized by the court.

Prior to the seizure of the traps, a DFO spokesperson repeated the department's position that it is enforcing regulations that include a prohibition on commercial fishing when the season is closed, something that has been demanded by commercial fishermen in the area.

"It is fishery officers' job to monitor fishing activity to ensure compliance with the Fisheries Act objectively, professionally, and with respect," wrote Lauren Sankey in an emailed statement.

"On the water patrols, including gear inspections, are operations that occur all across the country."

Archibald likened the situation to the treatment of First Nations under the residential school system.

"It's kind of like the government who put our children into institutions of assimilation and genocide, that they did not want to take responsibility for that. And we're seeing that same thing with this fishery issue," she told reporters.

She refused to say whether she accepts that the Department of Fisheries and Oceans has the right to regulate the Mi'kmaw fishery.

1999 Supreme Court of Canada decision

That authority was recognized by the Supreme Court of Canada in 1999 when it also ruled the Mi'kmaq had a treaty right to fish for a moderate livelihood. The term has never been defined, leading to disputes and conflict in Nova Scotia.

Archibald said a higher power is involved.

"The ultimate authority comes from the Creator. That's where our Great Spirit laws come from. And First Nations have the right to govern, regulate and manage that fishery, period," she said.

Immediately after speaking to reporters, Archibald and Mi'kmaw chiefs took to the water in a flotilla of boats to haul Sipekne'katik treaty traps.

DFO vessels and conservation officers were on the water but did not interfere.

But after most of the media departed Thursday, DFO vessels intercepted two Sipekne'katik fishing boats, seizing traps from one. 

Archibald said she returned to the water at that point to see "what happens to regular fisher people, because what we experienced earlier today ... was not what normally happens to Mi'kmaw fishers," she said.

Almost 600 traps seized

Prior to the seizure late Thursday, CBC News asked DFO for details on enforcement measures involving Sipekne'katik.

The department said since the commercial season closed at the end of May, it has seized 586 traps, released 7,440 lobster and made 20 arrests in St. Marys Bay.

The Trudeau government and the federal Conservatives both say Indigenous commercial fishing must take place within the commercial season.

The event also served as an endorsement of Sipekne'katik Chief Mike Sack, who was praised for his leadership in the dispute.