Indigenous services minister calls raid on N.S. fishing facilities an 'assault' on Mi'kmaw people

Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller today called Tuesday night's raid on fishing facilities in southwest Nova Scotia an "assault" on the Mi'kmaw people and urged police in the region to keep the peace.

Marc Miller calls on RCMP to keep the peace as Nova Scotia fishery dispute escalates

A Sipekne'katik First Nation community member holds a drum as he sits on lobster traps in Saulnierville, N.S. on Sunday, September 20, 2020. (Mark O'Neill/The Canadian Press)

Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller today called this week's raid on fishing facilities in southwestern Nova Scotia an "assault" on the Mi'kmaw people and urged police in the region to keep the peace.

His comments came as tensions mount over the First Nations lobster harvest in southwestern Nova Scotia. On Tuesday night, several hundred commercial fishermen and their supporters raided two facilities where Mi'kmaw fishermen were storing their catches.

By morning, a van had been set ablaze, hundreds of dead lobsters were strewn over the ground and one facility had been damaged.

WATCH | Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller on the tensions in the N.S. lobster fishery

'...if we don't get this right, people will die.' - Minister of Indigenous Services, Marc Miller

3 years ago
Duration 1:49
Featured VideoIndigenous Services Minister Marc Miller addresses latest unrest in the ongoing Nova Scotia lobster fisheries dispute between commercial and Mi'kmaw fisherman.

"I cannot end this conference ... without addressing the incidents in southwestern Nova Scotia in what amounts to an assault on the Mi'kmaw people," Miller told a news conference in Ottawa today.

"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."

WATCH | Tensions over N.S. Mi'kmaq lobster fishery escalate

Tensions over N.S. Mi'kmaq lobster fishery escalate

3 years ago
Duration 2:01
Featured VideoA group of commercial non-Indigenous fishermen confront Indigenous lobster fishers at a Nova Scotia fishery, throwing rocks, destroying lobster and setting vehicles on fire. Tensions have been high since Mi'kmaq fishermen launched the fishery last month.

Miller called for calm while talks at the federal level continue.

"To protect that right, space needs to be afforded to Indigenous leaders to continue discussions with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and [federal Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan]. And they are not easy discussions, but they must be had and they must be respected," he said.

"To do so, clearly, our police forces must ... maintain the peace."

The fact that no arrests have been made so far in connection with the two raids is prompting questions about the RCMP's response. 

Nova Scotia RCMP spokesperson Sgt. Andrew Joyce said no arrests had been made as of Wednesday afternoon — but added that officers did witness criminal activity and investigative teams were being assembled. 

In an email, Joyce said the RCMP has increased its presence in the area each day since the raids.

'Protect us,' says chief

Sack said the federal government and the RCMP are letting the community down.

"You know, they're sitting in their office, safe as can be, saying we need safety out here. Send enforcement down. Like, do your job. Protect Canadians. We're all Canadians. Come here, protect us and don't just tweet about it," he said.

"It's come to the point where it's a matter of, 'Do our lives matter?'"

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde said on Wednesday that it's time for the RCMP and federal and provincial governments to step in "before someone gets badly injured or possibly killed."

The Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi'kmaw Chiefs also called for immediate action.

"Lives are being put at risk," Chief Terrance Paul, co-chair and fisheries lead for the Assembly, said in a media release.

WATCH| Video shows piles of lobster strewn over the ground outside N.S. lobster pound

Video shows piles of lobster strewn over the ground outside N.S. lobster pound

3 years ago
Duration 0:28
Featured VideoOn Tuesday night, a mob burned and vandalized vehicles outside a lobster pound in Southwest Nova Scotia.

"The inactions of the government and RCMP are only providing for more opportunities for people to be injured, or possibly worse."

Miller said he has seen only the videos circulating online, but what he saw alarmed him.

"The first job of the police is to serve, protect and to preserve the peace," he said. "People need to be protected ... this is the duty of the police."

Pointing to the Wet'suwet'en solidarity movement and the related rail blockades earlier this year, Miller said it's clear there's still work to be done on the relationship between Indigenous communities and police.

"Police are an integral part of that, and their engagement with the population has been at issue ... over the course of this year," said Miller.

"There are some exceptional people within the police force and there are also some systems that are set by systemic racism that need to be addressed."

The RCMP's national headquarters has directed all inquiries about the events in southwestern Nova Scotia to the provincial detachment.

Commercial fishery representative calls for calm

NDP fisheries critic Gord Johns accused the federal government of turning a blind eye to the situation.

"We've been pushing the government to act but still they wash their hands of responsibility when it comes to the actions, and inaction, of the RCMP," he said. "And they've done nothing to give Department of Fisheries and Oceans officials on the ground the direction and mandate they need to fix the situation.

"This is on the federal government."

Colin Sproul, president of the Bay of Fundy Inshore Fishermen's Association, called for an end to the violence. He also said the only way to calm the situation is for Ottawa to get involved.

"What I make of the violence that was seen there is that there are a ton of people in Nova Scotia and southwest Nova Scotia and fishing communities across Atlantic Canada who are seriously concerned about the sustainability of our fisheries and the continuity of their way of life," he told CBC Nova Scotia.

Sproul said the federal government has handled the situation "abysmally" so far.

"The minister has totally abdicated her role here to act and in a role of sustainability and conflict resolution. And it's really evident that nobody can solve these problems in St. Mary's Bay," he said.

"They need to be solved by the minister and they need to be solved in Ottawa right away because this government's policies are trickling down in Nova Scotia and causing chaos."

Fisheries and Oceans Minister Bernadette Jordan told CBC News that she is speaking both to First Nations and to the commercial fish harvesters separately in an effort to find a solution. 

"I grew up in a in a rural coastal community and a fishing community. I understand that these that that people are concerned about a change. They're concerned about their livelihoods," she said.

"The long term sustainability of the industry is what we are working toward, and making sure that we have that for  generations to come."

Premier calls on Ottawa to define 'moderate livelihood'

The province's southwest has endured weeks of unrest following the launch of a lobster fishery by the Sipekne'katik band outside the federally mandated commercial season.

The band has justified its fishery by citing a 21-year-old Supreme Court of Canada ruling known as the Marshall decision, which affirmed the Mi'kmaw right to operate a "moderate livelihood" fishery.

The court later said the federal government could regulate the Mi'kmaw fishery but must justify any restrictions it placed on it. 

Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil called on the federal government to better define what a "moderate livelihood" means.

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

"And it's why, in my humble opinion, the chiefs need to focus on the national government. And bring the national government to the table and deal with both sides."

Sproul said he'd like Ottawa to pause the fishing season in Nova Scotia while this conflict is sorted out.

"Let's be clear, they have waited for 21 years for a legitimate recognition of their rights, but being forced to take ... what is largely a political action in St. Mary's Bay to achieve that recognition is not right ... But it's also not right that my members or the community, the fishing communities in Atlantic Canada, are forced to bear the brunt of that," he said

"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. Our issues are all with the minister and her lack of action."

With files from Taryn Grant