Nova Scotia

'Do your job': Sipekne'katik chief calls on PM to protect Mi'kmaw fishermen

The chief of Sipekne'katik First Nation has penned a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asking for better protection after a mob of commercial fishermen attacked two lobster pounds where Mi'kmaw fishers were storing their catches.

Mob of commercial fishermen torched vehicles, vandalized lobster pounds Tuesday

Chief Mike Sack is calling for better protection for Mi'kmaw fishermen after two lobster pounds were attacked Tuesday night. (CBC)

The chief of the Sipekne'katik First Nation is calling for better protection after a mob of hundreds of commercial fishermen and their supporters raided and vandalized two facilities in southwest Nova Scotia where Mi'kmaw fishermen were storing their catches.

Speaking with reporters Thursday afternoon, Chief Mike Sack said he sent a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asking him to make sure those involved in the violence are prosecuted.

"Our last resort is to reach out to Trudeau, hoping that he can assist us and to ensure the safety of our members," he said.

On Wednesday, Trudeau tweeted that the acts of violence committed Tuesday night were "unacceptable," and said "we must work together to advance reconciliation and implement First Nation treaty rights."

However, Sack said the prime minister's response rang hollow.

"Actions speak louder than words," he said. "Do your job…. Come here, protect us, and don't just tweet about it."

The two raids in New Edinburgh and Middle West Pubnico came after weeks of simmering tensions in the province's southwest, sparked by the launch of a moderate livelihood lobster fishery by the Sipekne'katik band outside the federally mandated commercial season.

The night of unrest saw lobster destroyed, a lobster pound damaged, a van set on fire and another vehicle vandalized.

On Tuesday night, a mob burned and vandalized vehicles outside a lobster pound in Southwest Nova Scotia. 0:27

Sack said he has hired lawyers and will be pursuing legal action against any individuals or groups "that are interfering with our right to fish" — including a man that grabbed and shoved him during an altercation Wednesday at the lobster pound in New Edinburgh.

He said the RCMP response was inadequate. Sack said the police presence wasn't enough to protect Mi'kmaw fishermen. So far, no arrests have been made.

"This truly is systemic racism. If it was 300 of our people and 40 of theirs, the place will be full of cops," he said. 

"Does Trudeau care about our people? Does he care about reconciliation? They talk about it, but I don't see any actions towards it."

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

Sack suggested Sipekne'katik may call on help from other First Nations in this dispute to "protect each other when the levels of government that are supposed to do not."

"Every day I'm getting messages: 'Should we come?' ... I'm holding them off to keep everything peaceful. But if there's no protection for us, we're going to have to go with the forces we need to."

CBC has reached out to the Prime Minister's Office for comment.

In an email, Nova Scotia RCMP spokesperson Sgt. Andrew Joyce said the RCMP has increased their police presence in the area each day since the raids.

"We have remained on scene during and since this incident. We have also assembled investigative teams actively gathering evidence to support criminal charges," he wrote.

A van belonging to a Mi'kmaw fisherman was set ablaze Tuesday night in New Edinburgh, N.S., during violent protests. (Riley Howe/Facebook)

"I cannot stress enough the RCMP take criminal behaviour seriously and will seek evidence to support it in court."

Joyce would not say how many officers are in the area.

Nova Scotia Justice Minister Mark Furey told reporters Thursday that the RCMP responded "with the resources they had available to them" and he was satisfied with their response.

"It's very difficult when they're faced with the circumstances they are — I believe in one case, 200 commercial fishers and six uniformed police officers," he said.

"They have a responsibility for public safety and that includes their own safety."

The inside of the van that was torched Tuesday night. (Robert Short/CBC)

Furey said the RCMP are using video and photographs to advance their investigation, and they can call in resources from other provinces if they see fit.

Sipekne'katik First Nation launched what the band calls a self-regulated lobster fishery at a wharf in Saulnierville, N.S., on Sept. 17 — 21 years after the Supreme Court ruling in the case of Donald Marshall Jr.

The landmark decision affirmed the Mi'kmaw right to earn a "moderate livelihood" from fishing. The court later said the federal government could regulate the Mi'kmaw fishery, but must justify any restrictions it placed on it.

Many commercial lobster fishermen say they consider the new Sipekne'katik fishery in St. Marys Bay illegal and worry that catching lobster outside the mandated season, particularly during the summer spawning period, will negatively impact stocks.

A view of the lobster pound in New Edinburgh on Thursday. (Robert Short/CBC)

Sipekne'katik officials have said the amount of lobster that will be harvested and sold is tiny compared to what's caught during the commercial season that begins in late November and runs until the end of May.

They say the fishery was launched after the band was unable to find common ground with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans on the definition of moderate livelihood.

Sack said DFO must be held accountable.

"We're here fighting for something that's already ours. It's very unfortunate," he said. 

Sack also said Sipekne'katik is looking to buy the lobster facility in New Edinburgh, but he said they're still working out the costs.

He said they're concerned about the amount of damage that was done to it by the commercial fishermen.

Colin Sproul, president of the Bay of Fundy Inshore Fishermen's Association, condemned the violence Thursday and encouraged commercial fisherman to remain peaceful.

He also accused Ottawa of handling the issues of sustainability and conflict resolution "abysmally."

"One thing that Chief Sack and myself have agreed on from the start is that our issues are not with each other, or Indigenous versus non-Indigenous," he said. 

"Our issues are all with the [fisheries] minister and her lack of action and the result is the chaos that we've seen this week in Nova Scotia."

Colin Sproul says he condemns the acts of violence taking place in Nova Scotia. (CBC)

Many fishermen in the province are worried about the sustainability of the fishery and their way of life, he said.

To that end, Sproul called for an immediate pause to the lobster fishery in Nova Scotia, especially in lobster moulting and breeding grounds, "coupled with the recognition of Indigenous peoples' legitimate right to fish for a moderate livelihood."

Sproul said it's "not right" that the First Nation was forced to take action to achieve their right, but it's also "not right that my members or the fishing communities in Atlantic Canada are forced to bear the brunt of that."

Attack described as 'racist vigilantism'

Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil has repeatedly said it's up to Ottawa and DFO to settle the lobster fishing dispute, and he did so again Thursday when answering questions from reporters following a cabinet meeting.

"No matter how much I want to resolve this issue, I don't have any authority to do so. That's why it's critical for the national government to be there," he said.

On Thursday, Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller also said the dispute was within the purview of DFO and Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan, and condemned the violence that took place.

"These unacceptable acts of violence, including the assault on [Sipekne'katik Chief Mike] Sack with threats and intimidation, some racist in nature, cannot and will not fetter the right of the people to pursue a moderate livelihood," he said.

Nova Scotia NDP leader Gary Burrill has used the strongest language yet of any political leader in Nova Scotia to denounce the violence.

Burrill told reporters Thursday that it is a "repugnant thing that citizens of our province should have to endure racist vigilantism in the exercise of a right which has been established incontrovertibly by the highest court in our country." 

He, too, said DFO was to blame for not defining a "moderate livelihood" sooner.

Violence 'disgusting,' says fisheries minister

In an interview with CBC, Jordan said she is in ongoing negotiations with the Sipekne'katik First Nation, as well as in conversation with commercial fishermen.

She said the First Nation has put forward a "very, very good fishing plan that has a lot of elements that we can work with."

"As you know, this is a right that was affirmed by the Supreme Court under the Marshall decision. We just need to find the best path forward to make sure we implement that right," she said.

Bernadette Jordan says there is no need for violence, and described what happened this week as "disgusting." 6:29

Jordan did not offer a timeline as to when that might happen.

"This is a long-term problem. This has been going on for 21 years. I would say that we are making progress," she said. 

"Unfortunately the events that happened yesterday may have stalled that progress and we need to make sure we get people back to the table."

She said she understands the frustrations people may be feeling, but said there is no need for violence and described what happened Tuesday and Wednesday as "disgusting."

Jordan also said the first priority in this dispute has to be conservation.

"That is what's going to be the long-term sustainability of the industry," she said.

A call for unity

Amid the tension in southeast Nova Scotia, there was also a calm exchange and a call for unity caught on camera Wednesday evening

In the video posted to Facebook, Sack spends several minutes speaking with Joel Comeau, a third-generation lobster fisherman from Meteghan.

"No one on either side wants what happened in the last 48 hours, no one is interested in that," Comeau, who is also vice-president of Local 9 of the Maritime Fishermen's Union, told CBC's Mainstreet on Thursday. "And I feel that DFO is causing everyone to be in a panic for no reason. They're not stepping in and doing their job."

Comeau said he was at home when he got the call about the vandalism in Middle West Pubnico and immediately began calling officials from DFO. He said no one got back to him.

Sack said he's open to speaking with members of the commercial lobster fishery, like Comeau, as long as they're willing to listen and work together.

He said he also wants to better understand the industry's concerns. 

"I have no problem at all in having good dialogue with people from industry, helping them understand everything that's in our management plan, but I'm not interested in discussing it with anyone that's completely oppositional and just looking to … divide the two sides," said Sack.

Comeau and Sack said they plan to meet again Friday morning to continue their conversation.

MORE TOP STORIES

About the Author

Alex Cooke

Reporter/editor

Alex is a reporter living in Halifax. Send her story ideas at alex.cooke@cbc.ca.

With files from Emma Smith, Paul Withers, Catharine Tunney, Tom Murphy, Amy Smith and Mainstreet

now