As It Happens·Q&A

N.S. fishermen's union head quits, says lobster dispute is 'too much of a toll' on his family

Joel Comeau says it's no longer safe for him to be the president of Local 9 of the Maritime Fishermen's Union in Nova Scotia.

Joel Comeau was supposed to meet with Sipekne'katik First Nation chief to discuss fight over lobster fishery

Joel Comeau has stepped down from his role with the Maritime Fisherman's Union local 9. (Olivier Lefebvre)

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Joel Comeau says it's no longer safe for him to be the president of the Maritime Fishermen's Union Local 9 in Nova Scotia.

Comeau stepped down Friday ahead of a planned meeting with Sipekne'katik First Nation Chief Mike Sack to discuss the increasingly tense dispute between commercial and Mi'kmaw lobster fishermen in the province.

Commercial fishermen strongly oppose the Mi'kmaw fishery operating outside the federally mandated commercial season, while the Mi'kmaq say they are exercising their treaty right to fish for a "moderate livelihood," as upheld by a 1999 Supreme Court ruling. 

The dispute boiled over Tuesday when hundreds of commercial fisherman stormed two facilities where the Mi'kmaq were storing their catches.

Comeau says tensions are so high in his community of Meteghan, N.S., that he no longer feels he or his family are safe. He and his wife Cindy Comeau spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off on Friday. Here is part of their conversation.

Mr. Comeau , why did you decide to resign today?

JC: After four years of working on this file and fighting for the fishermen and fighting with [Department of Fisheries and Oceans], I decided that it was too much of a toll on my family. We've been followed around the community. There's a lot of unrest and attacks and intimidation.

When you say intimidation and attacks, are you personally being subjected to that?

JC: Yes, me and my family. So we are going to keep that private between us. We're going to deal with that privately. And we've had outreach from good people in the community that, you know, they will have our backs.

I don't want to pry too much into it. You say you want to keep it private. But when you say people in the community have your backs, are you talking about that you feel that you ... and your family might be physically attacked?

JC: Physically and verbally, both. And I think verbally is almost worse than anything else.

Hi [Cindy], can I ask you, do you want to tell us what it's been like for your family?

CC: It's been a nightmare. Honestly, it's been a nightmare. We cry daily. It's an emotional roller coaster. And to see our kids are scared to come home from school or to get off the bus, and to be followed, and somebody stay in your driveway and stare at you with tinted windows and you not know if they've got a gun.

It's horrible, honestly, how the media has portrayed us so that people actually think that we're criminals and we're racist. You know, we love our community. And this is really what it's about is saving the community.

We live here. And when everybody picks up their s--t, moves on, we still live here and we've still got to deal with this on a regular basis. So it never goes away for us.

Honestly, everybody is to blame for this situation. And in the media, that's why we're so reluctant to talk to you guys, because the media just brutally crucifies us.

Who do you think is making these threats against you? When you say cars are in your driveway, do you have any idea who might be doing this?

JC: Yeah, but we're going to keep that personal.

CC: We don't want to point fingers because again, it becomes a race thing or it becomes a person thing.

JC: The RCMP will handle that.

On the other hand, we're hearing from [Sipekne'katik First Nation] Chief [Mike] Sack, who is saying the same thing. He's saying that they are are afraid, that their members of the community have been physically assaulted, harassed ...

JC: Don't try to pin the commercial fisherman with the Indigenous. You guys are good at doing that. No. We're not answering that.

But...

JC: It's not about that. No.

Mr. Comeau, I'm just pointing out that there's both sides are saying this is ...

CC: We just, we don't care about the other side. We just want to give our story. That's it.

JC: Yeah, that's their story and we can't speak for them.

Commercial fishermen make a peace offering to the Sipekne’katik band on Treaty Day, Oct. 1, 2020. Maritime Fishermen’s Union members presented Mi’kmaw elder De-Anne Sack with a basket containing sweetgrass, sage and tobacco. Shown are Cindy Comeau, Joel Comeau, De-Anne Sack, Luc LeBlanc and Ruth Inniss. (Maritime Fishermen’s Union )

Mr. Comeau, it's very obvious that this very distressing for you and your family. What can bring down the temperature in your community? What needs to happen at this point?

JC: The media needs to start and show both sides of the coin. You know what? We're not against Native fishermen. We're not against them ... fishing. We'd like to see their harvesting plans. We've begged [federal Fisheries Minister] Bernadette Jordan for any bits of information. We've got nothing. We've got nothing.

What do you need to do? Chief Sack was to meet with you today if you were still head of the the union local. What can happen? Who can sit down at the table at this point and start to sort this out so your community can move on?

JC: Me and Mike had a conversation, bright and early this morning at eight o'clock, and I told him my position, why I was stepping away. And he fully understood that. He supported my decision. And, you know, he's got his own agenda that he's got to take care of. And I have my family and agenda to take care of, and I respect that from him.

Trudeau calls for an 'end to the violence' in response to latest rising tensions between commercial and Mi'kmaw fisherman in Nova Scotia. He speaks with reporters at a Federal Public Health news conference. 0:59

It seems that the Maritime Fishermen's Union Local 9 has lost you as the leader, that you were going to do something that could have really helped. And so would you reconsider your resignation in order to see if you could bring this a step forward?

JC: I would have to sit down with my family, and right now my family would never allow me back in my position. There's no way. My daughter, my wife, you know, my father, my mother, the whole family. There's no way. It's too hard on the family, as long as Bernadette Jordan stays inactive and doesn't play her part. I mean, she does have the right to regulate all fishing, including Indigenous fishing. She does. I mean, you're hearing otherwise in the media, but that is false. It's not true. She does have the authority.

We have a commercial season coming in six weeks, and there'll be nothing left for us to fish in St. Mary's Bay. My heart goes out to the fishermen who have to stay in the bay and fish. It is going to be a hard season, and them having a hard season, it is going to be hard on this community. Financially, this community is going to hurt a lot. And, you know, we're just trying to do what's best for everybody.

Can I just ask you finally, Cindy, what do you want to happen? I mean, could you imagine your husband going back into this position? What do you want to be resolved here? How can it be resolved?

CC: I think what most people need to understand is we've been fighting this fight for four years. It's not been a month and a half. So we've been fighting it for four years. And four years of meetings with with chiefs and coalitions and other members … and we are no further ahead in four years than what we were at when we began.

I don't understand if people don't realize that there's closed seasons for reasons. It really is true. And the thing is ... there is an open season all over this province all year long. So those open seasons could be fished all year long in the open season. 

Nobody wants anybody to lose their moderate livelihood or to not fish or not be self-sufficient and do great in your life. Everybody wants that for one another. 

So what I would like to see happen is for everybody to just fish a regular season. Everybody get along like it should be. There's no racists here. There's nobody that hates one another. We try our best to get along with everybody.

I mean, it's so funny hearing us being called racist and terrorists in the media. It's so overwhelming to me, because they make fun of us on TV for being so polite and using the word "sorry" so much. So for us to be called anything but polite, nice people, it's mind blowing to me. Mind blowing.


Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Chris Harbord. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

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