Day 6

Filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin reflects on documenting Mi'kmaq fishing rights over 4 decades

Abenaki filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin has covered the rights of Indigenous fishers in two films. Today, she says many of the same issues remain frustratingly misunderstood and unresolved in Nova Scotia — but that there is reason to hope for progress.

'I can't believe that it's still the same today. We're in 2020,' says the Abenaki documentarian

Filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin has covered Indigenous fishing rights since the 1980s. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

Nearly four decades ago, filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin documented the fight for Indigenous fishers's rights when provincial police raided the Restigouche reserve in Quebec.

Looking at the ongoing dispute among Mi'kmaq and commercial fishers in southwestern Nova Scotia today, she says there's still work to be done.

"I can't believe that it's still the same today. We're in 2020," said Obomsawin, who is a member of the Abenaki Nation.

"The same people cannot respect the fact that our people do have rights — fishing rights, hunting rights — and obviously they're always having a horrifying time taking part in these rights."

In 1981, non-Indigenous fishers revolted against Indigenous fishers — cutting their traps and setting fires — who were trying to make a living. It was captured in her landmark 1984 documentary Incident at Restigouche.

Nearly 20 years later, she made Is the Crown at war with us?, a documentary about the efforts of Mi'kmaq fishers in Burnt Church, N.B., to assert their right to fish following the 1999 Supreme Court of Canada decision that granted them the right to earn a "moderate livelihood" from fishing and hunting year round.

Last month, members of the Sipekne'katik First Nation launched a moderate livelihood commercial lobster fishery outside of the federally-regulated season. The move angered non-Indigenous fishers.

Mi'kmaq fishers have faced violence, and RCMP have made two arrests, one for arson and another for assault. On Wednesday, a Nova Scotia Supreme Court judge issued a temporary court injunction to end blockades, interference and threats against band members using wharfs in the region.

Obomsawin says it's crucial to record these situations.

"It's documenting whatever's happening at the time. It's part of our history and all Canadians should know that," she said.

Earlier this month, Obomsawin won the $100,000 Glenn Gould Prize in recognition of her lifetime contribution to the arts.

Though the struggle for Indigenous rights has been a long fight, Obomsawin tells Day 6 that she is still optimistic for positive outcomes.

She points to the fishery in Restigouche as a sign of progress. First Nations now manage the river and operate a commercial operation there.

"I refuse to not have hope. I'm sorry. I think someday it's going to change. It changed for Restigouche, and it's going to eventually change in the other communities, because there is no choice," she said.

"What's happening now in that area [of Nova Scotia] is going to have to learn and stop this way of behaving, because who wants to be at war like this every day?"


Written by Jason Vermes. Produced by Laurie Allan.

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