The Wil of the People: Is the heart of reconciliation still beating? — Part 3

In part three of a series on the Indigenous fishing dispute, political columnist Wil Robertson discusses the ongoing issues around reconciliation. (Aaron Sousa/AQ)

This is the final part of a three-part series about the Mi’kmaq fishing dispute. Read part one here and part two here.

Parliament held an emergency debate on Oct. 19 on the fishery dispute, days after the storage facility burned to the ground suspiciously in Middle West Pubnico, Nova Scotia, on Oct. 17.

Nothing came out of it but statements. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called for the violence to end.

“Violence in Nova Scotia must stop now. It’s unacceptable, it’s shameful and it’s criminal,” he said. 

Jagmeet Singh, New Democratic Party leader, told MPs attending an emergency debate on the incidents of violence in southwestern Nova Scotia, that the Mi’kmaq fishing operation is not a threat of conservation, but one of systemic racism.

At the same debate, Bernadette Jordan, Minister of Oceans, Fisheries and the Canadian Coast Guard, said Canada has operated for years without considering First Nations’ rights.

“We build up whole systems, institutions and structures without considering them,” she said. 

Erin O’Toole, leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, highlighted the government’s inaction. The Conservative MP for West Nova, a riding that includes the communities in question (St. Mary’s Bay area), called for the voices of non-Indigenous fishermen to be heard.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada continued to remove the lobster traps of Indigenous fisheries in both Cape Breton and southwestern N.S. into November, prompting Chief Mike Sack of the Sipekne’katik First Nation to publicly call for Minister Jordan’s resignation on Nov. 18, 2020. This came after the Minister had not responded to Sack for over a week.

This may have been due to the government taking the time to reassess the situation after Halifax-based Clearwater Seafoods announced a billion-dollar deal on Nov. 9, to sell the company to a partnership between Premium Brands of British Columbia and a coalition of Mi’kmaq First Nations. Clearwater Seafoods is North America’s largest producer of shellfish and holds Canadian harvest licences for a wide variety of species, including lobster. The company, holding the licenses of many non-Indigenous fishermen in N.S., is now owned 50 per cent by Mi’kmaq nations. We all know what they say about karma. It seemed to be a piece of restorative justice long overdue.

Two months after the lobster dispute erupted, on Nov. 29, Sack announced that he had received a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) from Minister Jordan, which he labelled “a historic recognition” of their treaty rights. This MOU is a preliminary legally-binding document proposed by the government and no details have been published thus far as to its contents. This has been a months-long dispute filled with violence and vitriol, racism and government inaction, 21 years after the R. v. Marshall decisions and 260 years after the Crown signed peace and friendship treaties with the Mi’kmaq. A new solution to the crisis, such as the MOU, is possibly in sight. This solution would acknowledge Indigenous Peoples’ protected treaty rights to fish for a moderate livelihood and sustain themselves and their community, as opposed to profit.

To put this into perspective, since R. v. Marshall was decided in 1999, there have been four Prime Ministers, nine Ministers of Crown-Indigenous Affairs, three Ministers of Indigenous Services in this current government alone, ten Ministers of Fisheries and Oceans and the Coast Guard. None of them did anything to align the R. v. Marshall decision and Indigenous treaty rights with federal DFO policy over the past 21 years. It took the actions of Mi’kmaq Peoples and their supporters, sustaining overt racism, threats and violence, to finally bring about substantial change to government policy that became the government’s responsibility 21 years ago.

Bravery and civil disobedience were effective in making change despite the systems of power and oppression filled with systemic racism. A friend of mine pointed out something important to note: had the non-Indigenous fishermen who committed so many heinous acts instead been Indigenous (and the roles were reversed), SWAT teams and armed officers would have forcibly removed and arrested them immediately. Systemic racism, and racism within our society, along with what Martin Luther King Jr. once dubbed the “white moderate” plagued with inaction and short memories, certainly still exists and pervades within society today.

Reconciliation is still on life support and in critical condition, but through this dark time has received a much-needed injection of hope. We all still have work to do, and if there is any lesson out of this at all, let it be that when we stand alongside our Indigenous friends in the face of racism and oppression, we can bring about the winds of change and rout out racism in our society. Without that work, reconciliation will perish.