DIGBY, N.S. — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau needs to do more than send tweets to settle a violent dispute over an Indigenous-led lobster fishery in Nova Scotia, a First Nations chief said Thursday.
"Actions speak louder than words," Chief Mike Sack of the Sipekne’katik First Nation told a news conference Thursday in Digby, N.S., located about 40 kilometres from where a lobster pound was damaged by protesters.
"They’re sitting in their offices, safe as can be, saying, 'We need safety out there.' Then send enforcement down," Sack said. "Do your job. Protect Canadians ... Don’t just tweet about it."
RCMP have said about 200 people were present at two violent clashes Tuesday outside lobster pounds in New Edinburgh and Middle West Pubnico.
Describing the events as a hate crime, Sack asked Trudeau to send additional law enforcement personnel to the area to ensure the violence is contained.
"This truly is systemic racism," Sack said when asked about the RCMP’s actions. "Does Trudeau care about our people? Does he care about reconciliation? They talk about it, but I don’t see any actions towards it ... The RCMP dropped the ball."
The chief said his council has decided to take legal action against those who are interfering with the band’s self-regulated lobster fishery. "We’ll go after everyone," he said, adding that his First Nation is considering calling in Indigenous warriors from across the country.
The non-Indigenous protesters say they are opposed to the band’s decision to start a commercial lobster fishing business that has operated outside the federally regulated lobster season since mid-September.
Sack argues Indigenous people in Atlantic Canada and Quebec have a treaty right to fish where and when they want, based on a 1999 Supreme Court of Canada decision that cites treaties signed by the Crown in the 1700s.
Many non-Indigenous critics, however, cite a clarification issued four months after the 1999 ruling, stating the Mi’kmaq treaty rights would be subject to federal regulations to ensure conservation of the resource.
Chief Mike Sack of the Sipekne’katik First Nation said Thursday his council has decided to take legal action against those who are interfering with the band’s self-regulated lobster fishery. #NovaScotia #Mikmaq
The RCMP confirmed Thursday they had increased the number of officers in the area following the violent incidents on Tuesday night. RCMP Sgt. Andrew Joyce said he couldn’t comment on reports circulating on social media suggesting there were more confrontations in New Edinburgh late Wednesday, though he did say no arrests were made.
"What we’re hoping for is a peaceful resolution to this very important issue," Joyce said in an interview. "For me to speculate ... how long (the RCMP) will remain (in New Edinburgh), I certainly don’t want to go down that road."
In Ottawa, Minister of Indigenous Services Marc Miller said he found the images of Tuesday night’s violence alarming.
"We’re talking about a fundamental right to earn a moderate livelihood, that is a right the Mi’kmaq are entitled to exercise," Miller said. He noted that "moderate livelihood" has never been defined in a way that’s acceptable to all sides and said non-Indigenous fishers need to be involved in the discussion.
"The risk, if we don’t get this right, is that people will die ... Violence begets violence, and that is unacceptable," he said.
Meanwhile, Sack said his council opposes a plan by a Mi’kmaq activist to sell "livelihood lobster" outside the Nova Scotia legislature on Friday.
The chief said the event was not approved by the band council as part of a system for sales it is setting up, and he suggested it could derail talks with government officials.
Cheryl Maloney, a former president of the Nova Scotia Native Women’s Association, said Thursday the event would be used to draw attention to the fact that provincial regulations prevent the sale of seafood caught by people who do not hold a valid commercial fishing licence.
"This provision is unconstitutional since it excludes Mi’kmaq from selling lawfully caught fish under the Peace and Friendship Treaties of 1760-1761 and represents an infringement of their right to a livelihood, as affirmed by the Supreme Court of Canada," Maloney said in a statement.
Sack said the Mi’kmaq fishery will continue despite the damage done to the holding facilities, the burning of one of the fisher’s boats and damage to vehicles in recent weeks.
He said the band is now in the process of purchasing the damaged plant in New Edinburgh, which he said would include a buyer’s licence if the sale is completed. "It’s just a matter of doing the paperwork," he said.
There are currently 10 Mi’kmaq vessels from the band working in the moderate livelihood fishery in St. Marys Bay.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 15, 2020.
— With files from Danielle Edwards and Michael MacDonald in Halifax