Canada, despite often riding on high moral ground when it comes to minority relations, have generationally neglected its founding Indigenous populations. Politicians for decades have hoisted up disgraceful facades of indigenous platforms, all claiming to be championing the next step forward for Canada’s indigenous people, yet still, in 2020 and with a Prime Minister who is regarded as one of the most progressive world leaders in the western world, even he and his government are neglecting indigenous communities across the country.
The most recent evidence of this Canadian political pitfall is a set of disappointing skirmishes in Nova Scotia between indigenous Mi’kmaq fishers and local non-indigenous fishers. Tensions regarding these fishing relations in the province have been a significant issue for centuries really, but a 1999 Supreme Court of Canada case ruled to uphold several 1760s treaties allowing the Mi’kmaq fishers in question the right to fish to the extent of earning a “moderate livelihood”. This specific phrase, a “moderate livelihood”, is the main focus of the ongoing disputes.
Non-indigenous fishers in the area contend that the indigenous fishers are threatening the sustainability of local lobster populations, and by and large, threatening the longer-term viability of the critical industry. It has to be acknowledged though that the contention on the issue is embedded in the fact that the local lobster fishing season is still weeks away, but the aforementioned treaties allow the indigenous fishers the exemption to typical season regulations.
This past Friday, tensions boiled over in a fire at one of the indigenous fishing storage facility, ultimately burning it down it its entirety. Since the event, one individual has been charged with assault on Sipekne’katik First Nation Chief Michael Sack, and another is facing arson charges in connection with the fishing compound fire. Despite Sack calling for bolstered RCMP presence in the area, police have said that the RCMP already has a significant presence in the vicinity and continue to investigate both sides of the conflict.
Looking at potential government intervention, the 1999 Supreme Court ruling clarifies that the federal government has the right to regulate indigenous fishing, however, it must be substantiated with proof that they are necessary for environmental conservation. Premier Stephen McNeil said on Twitter that, “Before we can look at our provincial regulations for fish buyers, the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans needs to answer the question of what constitutes legal harvesting under a moderate livelihood fishery”.
It’s these kinds of ‘grey-area’ disputes where government intervention stalls far too easily while both parties have a valid justification to their claims. Because the fishing industry is such a central aspect of life economically out east, as well as culturally for local indigenous people, it’s something that politics, unfortunately, likely won’t play much of a role in since very few politicians would potentially stake their job on such a volatile and unstable set of circumstances.
As key players from the local fishing industry as well as politicians call for de-escalation, it is still unclear if these urges will be acted on. The fact is that both the indigenous fishers as well as the non-indigenous fishers are justified in their respective stances and concerns on the issue. This means though that the only solution is for clarity to be introduced by either provincial, federal, or court authorities to outline exactly which fishing practices can be done by each group of fishers and at what time it is to be done.
This is precisely one of those precarious situations where democracy is meant to shine – where elected representatives must make those tough decisions in the interests of those people they represent. Yet still, democracy is hindered here by partisan motives and whipped votes, where the interests of the people are blatantly disregarded in favour of the political game.