Indigenous Headlines in the News in 2020
Hundreds of First Nations groups have engaged in efforts to protect their land since Canada was founded. A huge number of these incidents made headlines in 2020 such as the Wet’suwet’en opposition to the Coastal GasLink pipeline, Land Back lane, and the attacks on Mi’kmaq fisheries. While it is important to stay well-informed on the current state of these protests, it is also necessary to discuss and celebrate Indigenous success stories that may otherwise be drowned out by the recent overwhelmingly negative news coverage in which government officials often smear Indigenous activism as illegal, destructive or unnecessary even if it is peaceful and has the support of treaties. Very few media outlets have taken the time to highlight Indigenous victories and positive news relating to their communities. This is why it is important for Canadians to learn about the recent deal between the Clearwater Seafoods company and the Mi’kmaq in order to appreciate the monumental significance of the deal and how it will lead to a bright future for many Mi’kmaq communities.
Who are the Mi’kmaq?
The Mi’kmaq are Indigenous peoples who are made up of several different bands that are found mainly in Nova Scotia. There are also some Mi’kmaq communities located in New Brunswick, Newfoundland, Quebec and Maine. “Mi’kmaq” is the plural term referring to more than one Mi’kmaw person or to the whole nation. “Mi’kmaw” is singular. Collectively, their territories in Atlantic Canada are known as Mi’kma’ki.
The Mi’kmaq have traditional fishing practices that are thousands of years old. Lobster fishing is particularly important in their culture. Yet they have often had difficulties in the fishing industry because of racism from non-Indigenous fishers. For the past year, they have been negotiating a trade deal with Clearwater Seafoods Inc. When the deal with Clearwater Seafoods was finalized this November, it was seen as a massive win for the Mi’kmaq as it was a step towards economic independence. They already had expert knowledge of fishing, but the deal opened up opportunities for employment and long term financial stability.
A map of Mi’kmaq First Nations in Nova Scotia. The Membertou band in northeastern Nova Scotia was responsible for spearheading the decision to acquire half of Clearwater Seafoods Inc. (Image source: novascotia.ca)
What the Deal Means
The Clearwater Seafoods deal is a perfect example of an inspiring victory for Indigenous peoples, particularly the Membertou and Miawpukek band of the Mi’kmaq. This billion-dollar deal means that, as of Monday, November 9th, Clearwater Seafoods in Halifax will be owned by a joint partnership between the Mi’kmaq and a specialty food company called Premium Brands. The Mi’kmaq will own all of the company’s fishing licenses. Clearwater CEO Ian Smith says “You don’t really see a lot of these types of stories nowadays, which is a story where everybody wins.” In a public announcement to the Membertou First Nation, it seems that Chief Terry Paul can hardly contain his excitement when he writes that the deal “will have lasting positive impacts on our community for seven generations to come.” Mi’kmaq communities across the Atlantic provinces have sustainably fished on their traditional lands for thousands of years. Now, the Mi’kmaq are international leaders in the fishing industry.
Known as the largest investment in the fishing industry by an Indigenous group, the deal will increase jobs among the Mi’kmaq and bring in more revenue to their communities. Bernadette Marshall, a mother from Potlotek First Nation in Cape Breton also notes that the deal will be a source of pride for young people as it will lead to a bright future. She says “It’s so positive. I can’t find a negative yet.”
A fishing boat with the flag of Mi’kma’ki (Image Source: Toronto Star)
The Struggle to Defend the Mi’kmaq Right to Moderate Livelihood
Chief Terry Paul of the Membertou points out the need to make a clear distinction between the moderate livelihood based fishery and the large-scale commercial acquisition of Clearwater Seafoods. He writes “Please understand that this commercial acquisition is separate from both our moderate livelihood (rights-based) fishery, and our commercial in-shore fishery operations. With today’s news, we are proud participants in all sectors of the fishery.” An example of a rights-based fishery are the Sipekne’katik band’s lobster traps set up to make a moderate livelihood. It is also important to keep in mind that the benefits of the Clearwater acquisition are going to be seen more in the long-term, while rights-based fisheries are being threatened right now.
Since early fall, the Sipekne’katik First Nations, one of the largest bands of the Mi’kmaq, have been targeted with racist attacks and violence ever since they launched their own modest, small-scale lobster fishery in Nova Scotia. On October 14th, an angry mob of 200 non-Indigenous fishermen burned down two lobster storage facilities that belonged to the Mi’kmaq. The RCMP was criticized for its inaction. Sipekne’katik chief Michael Sack declared a state of emergency after flares were shot at their boats. Fishers also received racist threats and had their property vandalized.
The Sipekne’katik First Nation launched a self-regulated fishery on September 17th 2020 (Image Source: The Guardian)
Naturally, one may be wondering why non-Indigenous fishers made such extreme attacks against the Sipekne’katik. Rick Harp, a journalist from the Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation who closely follows Indigenous news, says that they claim that the Sipekne’katik First Nation would be endangering the lobster stock. Yet this is a claim that is easy to dispute, as the Sipekne’katik only have 50 lobster traps compared to the commercial sector in Nova Scotia which has 35,000. Marine biologist Robert Steneck from the University of Maine says that the Sipekne’katik lobster traps are not a threat to conservation. Rick Harp also mentions that a common argument brought up against the Sipekne’katik is that their lobster fishery is illegal. The truth is that it actually has the support of a treaty signed in 1752 which affirmed the Mi’kmaq right to hunt and fish for a moderate livelihood. The attacks on the Sipekne’katik First Nation have no justification from either an ecological or legal standpoint. It is reasonable to conclude that the only motivation for these attacks is racism, or as Harp calls it, “settler panic.”
The Treaty of 1752
The Sipekne’katik and other Mi’kmaq often justify their right to fish based on the treaty of 1752. This treaty was signed both by the chief of the Mi’kmaq of eastern Nova Scotia as well as by the governor. It made peace and promised certain hunting, fishing and trading rights. The Mi’kmaq believe the treaty should still be honoured today. The Mi’kmaq Treaty Handbook says “The eighteenth century agreements between the Mi’kmaq nation and Britain were, and still are, regarded by us as a form of brotherhood.”
The 1752 treaty, as well as other eighteenth-century treaties, are often cited when defending Mi’kmaq fishing rights today. (Image Source: Halifax Public Libraries)
What Can You Do to Help?
Given the important distinction between the Clearwater Seafoods deal and the attacks on the small-scale subsistence fishery, one must not see the deal as a complete solution to all the difficulties the Mi’kmaq have had to endure. With this being said, the acquisition of Clearwater by the Membertou is worthy of celebration for the bright future it promises. It is perhaps too early to predict if the deal will help the Sipekne’katik First Nation defend itself from racist attacks. It is possible for people to celebrate the good news while still advocating for treaty fishing rights and a moderate livelihood.
One reason why racist groups or the federal government may get away with disregarding treaties is because the general Canadian public is not educated on them. It helps to familiarize yourself with treaties that affirm the existence of the Sipekne’katik fishery and others like it. There is also a petition which will send emails to government representatives in Nova Scotia.
Finally, trying to get facts straight from the source is important to avoid sifting through biased media coverage as much as possible. The Sipekne’katik First Nation has its own page for posting updates about the situation. On Instagram, a great hashtag to keep up-to-date with is #alleyesonmikmaki. The Mi’kmaq lawyer Pamela Palmater also runs a blog which is worth subscribing to. With today’s widespread use of social media in activism, it’s now easier than ever to stand up for treaty rights.