After a week of violence and arson, the federal government is sending more RCMP officers to Nova Scotia in a bid to restore calm as tensions rise over lobster fishing and Indigenous rights.
But the federal Indigenous Services Minister has criticized the police response thus far, saying the Mounties have failed to protect the Indigenous fishermen.
“We must also recognize that once again as evidenced by the scenes of violence, Indigenous people have been let down by the police, those who are sworn to protect them,” Marc Miller said in a news conference Monday. “The protection of people on both sides has to prevail, and clearly that has not been the case up until now.”
Fishermen from the Sipekne’katik First Nation in southwestern Nova Scotia have been targeted in recent weeks, accused of threatening the sustainability of the lobster fishery. Since September they have been fishing outside of the commercial lobster season.
More than 20 years ago, the Supreme Court recognized First Nations have a treaty right to fish for a “moderate livelihood,” subject to reasonable regulations.
Commercial fishermen say the Indigenous fishermen are ignoring the regulations and they have pulled their lobster traps from the water. Last week, Sipekne’katik First Nation Chief Mike Sack was assaulted, a van belonging to an Indigenous fisherman was set ablaze and a large lobster processing facility was burned to the ground.
Miller said the violence has to stop and the government stands with First Nations who have a right to fish.
“No act of violence will prevent Canada from upholding that right, nor from the Mi’kmaq people from exercising that right,” he said. “It’s a disgrace to see these threats and acts of intimidation and violence taking place in this country.”
Video footage has shown RCMP officers appearing to stand by as protesters vandalized property. Miller said that is unacceptable.
Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said there is a need for significant reform to how police work in Indigenous communities. “I do acknowledge that there are concerns within Indigenous communities,” he said. “We’re working hard to resolve them.”
Officers from neighbouring Atlantic provinces would be moving into the province in what Blair described as a “peacekeeping operation.”
“These officers are conducting supplemental uniform patrols to high-risk areas, maintaining a strong presence to maintain the peace. The officers have access to an RCMP vessel, and they’re able to patrol on the water in areas where they are required.”
Blair said the police laid charges in the van arson, as well as the assault on Sack. He said a person of interest had been identified in the lobster pound fire, but they are recovering from severe burns.
Blair said police on the ground have been doing their job, following up and investigating crimes and holding those responsible to account.
“it is not always possible to prevent every act of criminality, but people will be held to account and we have now ensured that they have adequate resources to do all that is possible and necessary to maintain the peace.”
It’s beyond, beyond reprehensible, that they’re still saying at this point, well we’re just going to send more law enforcement down here
Sack said he welcomes the RCMP’s presence, but does worry they still won’t be enough.
“If hundreds of people show up. I don’t think what they have in the area will contain that,” he said. “Our frustration is that somebody could have been hurt.”
Sack said his community’s small fishery is no threat to the commercial fishery. He said his community wants the access they won in the Supreme Court decision decades ago. He said they’re happy to talk with commercial fishers, but the issues should be resolved between the First Nation and the federal government.
“We’re open to having discussions with commercial fishermen, but they’re not included in their talks with the government.”
Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan said the issue has been ignored for far too long and the government is working hard to address the problem.
“We’re here because our country operated for centuries without considering First Nations’ rights. We built up whole systems and structures, without considering them.”
Jordan said she wouldn’t negotiate in public, but the government was working toward a resolution.
An emergency debate on the issue was to be held in the House of Commons on Monday evening.
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole said the government has dithered on the file and is reacting only in a crisis.
“Instead of sending in negotiators a month ago the government has to send in police officers,” he said in the House of Commons. “When will the minister finally do her job, before more people get hurt.”
Colin Sproul, president of the Bay of Fundy Inshore Fishermen’s Association, said he and his group condemn the violence. He said the federal government is responsible for this situation because it has failed to enforce fishery regulations.
“In their desperation to try and get legitimate, final reconciliation of Mi’kmaq rights to fish, the government stopped enforcing existing fishery laws in Nova Scotia during the last three years,” he said.
He said sending more officers won’t solve the problem if politics prevents them from enforcing the rules.
“It’s beyond, beyond reprehensible, that they’re still saying at this point, well we’re just going to send more law enforcement down here to Nova Scotia.”
Sproul said they support the right of Indigenous people to fish, but they have to respect regulations. He said fishing out of season will do considerable damage to the fishery.
“We respect and support indigenous fishery rights. This is not what it’s about. It’s about sustainability.”
Jordan insisted her government won’t compromise on good fishery management.
“We are seeing right now we do have a very healthy stock, and we’re going to continue to make sure that that’s the case.”
Sack said his community is putting a few hundred traps in the water, while the commercial industry puts hundreds of thousands. He said they have no intention of hurting the sustainability of the industry.
“We will work with the government on a nation to nation basis, but as of right now, our main focus would be to ensure conservation and to ensure that the lobster industry is there for seven generations to come.”