Cross Country Checkup·Ask Me Anything

'Abject failure': Sen. Murray Sinclair criticizes federal response to Mi'kmaw fishery dispute

As part of Cross Country Checkup's Ask Me Anything series, Sen. Murray Sinclair spoke about the Sipekne'katik First Nation's "moderate livelihood" fishery and the federal government’s response to the violence.

Senator discusses ongoing tension in N.S. as part of Ask Me Anything series

Sen. Murray Sinclair criticized the federal government and the RCMP for not doing enough to keep the peace between Mi'kmaw and non-Indigenous fishers in Nova Scotia. (Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press)

The federal government's response to ongoing tensions over Indigenous fishing rights has been "an abject failure," Sen. Murray Sinclair said.

"I'm disheartened by the fact that the government's leadership — the leadership of this country — is not stepping up to the plate," Sinclair told CBC Radio's Cross Country Checkup on Sunday.

Tensions have flared between non-Indigenous fishermen and Mi'kmaw fishers in southwest Nova Scotia following the launch of a lobster fishery by Sipekne'katik First Nation outside the federally mandated commercial season.

A landmark 1999 Supreme Court decision affirmed the right of First Nations people on Canada's East Coast to earn a "moderate livelihood" from fishing. Commercial fishers who say that the fishery is illegal have pushed back on the move, raiding and vandalizing facilities that store lobster caught by Mi'kmaw fishers.

On Saturday, a fire broke out at one such lobster pound in Middle West Pubnico, N.S. Police have called the blaze suspicious.

In a written statement to Checkup, federal Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan said that she condemned the violence of the past week, adding "our government is seized with the issue, and we will continue to work with both First Nations and industry leadership to find a path forward."

Four Liberal cabinet ministers and the federal NDP have called for an emergency debate in the House of Commons in response to the tensions.

As part of the call-in program's Ask Me Anything series, Sinclair spoke about the fishery and the federal government's response to the violence, and took questions from host Ian Hanomansing and callers.

'Political decision' by Supreme Court

Sam DeFreitas calling from Kitchener, Ont., asked Sinclair who he believes is "in the right" in the ongoing dispute.

"When it comes to the issue of the fishery itself, the Mi'kmaq people clearly have a right that is a higher right than the commercial fishers have, and the commercial fishers don't recognize that," said Sinclair, who was the former chief commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. "The commercial fishers that are the ones who are attacking the Mi'kmaq in the exercise of their right are acting to protect their licensed position."

But Sinclair pushed back on what he calls a "political decision" by the Supreme Court to limit First Nations fishing rights to earning a "moderate livelihood" — a term he says he disagrees with.

The Supreme Court actually made two decisions, Sinclair said, in the case of Donald Marshall Jr. — which is at the centre of the dispute. In the first, it ruled that Indigenous fishers had the right to fish as they did at the time Peace and Friendship Treaties were signed in 1760 and 1761.

Weeks after that decision, following violence between Indigenous and non-Indigenous fishers, the court clarified the ruling did not provide First Nations with unlimited fishing rights.

"I think the Supreme Court decided that they better tone back on their original decision, and I think it showed a lack of courage on the part of the Supreme Court," Sinclair said.

A 'moderate livelihood' fishery launched in Saulnierville, N.S., by Sipekne'katik First Nation is at the centre of the dispute. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

Commercial fishers 'bear responsibility'

Asked by Hanomansing who is responsible for the ongoing situation in Nova Scotia, Sinclair pointed fingers at non-Indigenous fishers and those who represent them.

"The commercial fishers themselves bear responsibility for turning back on their own membership, and I think it's the leaders of that association who should be stepping up and telling their members to stop doing what they're doing," he said.

"The fact that we don't hear their voices really concerns me because it's very much an issue of silence as approval."

But Sinclair, who sits with the Independent Senators Group, acknowledged that members of both the Indigenous and non-Indigenous fisheries need to come together and discuss how they can move forward. 

Indigenous fishers, Sinclair added, have indicated that they are willing to respect the fishery.

"In fact, if you think about it, they maintained a fishery for thousands of years in that part of the ocean without overfishing and without damaging the fish stocks, and it's the commercial fishers who have historically been the ones who have damaged the fish stocks," he said.

Violence over lobster fisheries a disgrace: Indigenous services minister

CBC News

7 months ago
8:29
Indigenous services minister Marc Miller says urgent response is needed with Mi'kmaw fishermen under attack. 8:29

'They have to bring in an outsider'

Pointing to videos circulating on social media of the sometimes violent interactions between Mi'kmaw and non-Indigenous fishers, Sinclair said he was "struck at the absence of the RCMP."

The RCMP have faced criticism for not doing enough to keep the peace between the two groups over the past week. 

"Even when there were RCMP officers present in the video, I was also struck by their lack of intervention, by their inability — or their lack of willingness, almost — to bring the parties to a point where there they could be separated or where they were separated," he said.

On Saturday, federal Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said that he approved a request for additional RCMP presence in the region as a response to the violence.

RCMP support in Nova Scotia a 'long time coming,' says Sipekne'katik chief

CBC News

7 months ago
1:13
Sipekne'katik Chief Mike Sack says Mi'kmaw fishers are in urgent need of protection on land and sea. 1:13

In a statement, Nova Scotia RCMP told Checkup that they have made two arrests, one for assault and one for arson. "We are prepared to take the actions necessary should there be criminal activities that pose a threat to the safety of individuals or property. Violence is criminal and will not be tolerated," the statement said.

Sinclair said that more needs to be done and that in order to resolve the dispute, the government may need to reconsider their approach.

"I think they have to bring in an outsider that's going to assist in putting in place a plan to deal with that issue that will be supported by both the government as well as the Indigenous leaders of the Mi'kmaw fishing community," he said.


Written by Jason Vermes with files from CBC News and The Canadian Press. Produced by Steve Howard.

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