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Mi'kmaq elver fishers Kevin Hartling, left, and Blaise Sylliboy, who were arrested over the weekend, stand while having the Strong Woman song sung by members of the community while protesting outside of the Bedford Institute of Oceanography in Halifax on April 2.Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says the federal government is investigating a report of fisheries officers leaving two Mi’kmaq men at a gas station in the middle of the night without their shoes or cellphones, after they were arrested for allegedly fishing illegally in southwestern Nova Scotia last week.

The two men were fishing for elvers, or baby eels, when they were arrested in Shelburne County on March 26, according to Fisheries and Oceans Canada spokesperson Debbie Buott-Matheson. She declined to provide additional details or respond to questions about how the men were treated, saying the matter is under investigation.

Commercial fishing for elvers is currently banned in the Maritimes. The federal government closed the elver fishery last year, and declined to reopen it this year, citing concerns about poaching of the tiny eels. The closing has revived longstanding debates about how federal fisheries’ policies can affect the treaty fishing rights of First Nations, including Nova Scotia’s Mi’kmaq communities. The same issue is at the centre of a years-long dispute over whether Mi’kmaq people have the right to harvest lobster outside of the federally mandated season – tension that erupted nearly four years ago and fuelled violent confrontations with non-Indigenous lobster harvesters.

The men who were arrested, Blaise Sylliboy of Eskasoni First Nation and Kevin Hartling of Membertou First Nation, confirmed to The Globe and Mail that they were fishing for elvers out of season, but said their treaty rights allow them to do so legally.

“It’s an extremely troubling story,” Mr. Trudeau told reporters when asked about the officers’ treatment of the two men. “I know that the Minister of Fisheries is looking into this directly. We need a complete investigation to find out exactly what happened. Obviously, it’s important that there be enforcement of illegal fishing laws, but there are processes and procedures that need to be followed when someone is apprehended.”

The Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq Chiefs held a protest on Tuesday at the regional office of Fisheries and Oceans Canada in Dartmouth, N.S., where they entered the building to demand action for what they say was inhumane and racist treatment of two young fishermen.

Mr. Sylliboy and Mr. Hartling told The Globe that they walked shoeless for hours overnight, after fisheries officers arrested them around 10:30 p.m. at a local river.

The two men said the officers confiscated their waders, which had attached boots, and also took their cellphones. The men said they were dropped off at a gas station in Shelburne, about 200 kilometres southwest of Halifax, where they were offered use of a phone, but couldn’t call anyone because they couldn’t remember any phone numbers without their cellphones.

They said a gas station attendant cast them outside after providing cardboard, duct tape and plastic bags for their feet. They walked to a nearby motel, which wasn’t open, and then kept walking. They said they worried that if they stopped they would become hypothermic and die.

“It was just so cold. It was unbearable to stay in one spot. Like, my feet were ice numb,” said Mr. Sylliboy, a 25-year-old certified electrician.

Mr. Hartling, a 29-year-old father of four, was visibly shaken as he relayed the story to The Globe. “I don’t think it’s right what they did to us, to leave us there with no way to contact anyone and nothing on our feet,” he said.

A friend eventually tracked the men down before dawn at a convenience store. They have not been formally charged.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada spokesperson Lauren Sankey said it is standard practice for fishery officers to seize fishing gear related to suspected violations, including hip waders.

The claim that First Nations have a treaty right to fish out of season has been hotly disputed since a Supreme Court of Canada decision in 1999, in a case called Marshall. The court affirmed a treaty right to fish, hunt and gather in pursuit of a “moderate livelihood.”

The decision stemmed from the prosecution of Donald Marshall Jr., a Mi’kmaq member of the Membertou First Nation, who in 1993 was convicted of catching and selling eel out of season.

The Marshall decision reversed Mr. Marshall’s convictions. It was later updated to clarify that treaty rights can be limited for conservation or other public objectives. The term “moderate livelihood” has never been defined by the courts or the government.

In recent years, as European supplies have dried up, elvers have become the most valuable fish species in the Maritimes by weight. They sell for up to $5,000 a kilogram, and are often shipped live to Asia, where they are grown for food.

Since the beginning of last month, fishery officers have arrested 39 people for fishing elver.

Meanwhile, almost 1,000 licensed elver fishermen in Atlantic Canada, including about 800 who are Indigenous, are now out of work, said Brian Giroux of Shelburne Elver, which employs 40 people.

“This is a $45-million fishery denied to the area right now – it’s a lot of tax dollars, a lot of income, a lot of people out of work. And somehow these people think they have the right to go and just do whatever they want?” he said.

Outside the Fisheries and Oceans Canada regional office on Tuesday, dozens of Mi’kmaq demonstrated, some in their sock feet and carrying signs calling for treaty rights. They demanded the Fisheries Minister fire the officers involved.

The protesters included Jake Maloney, an elder from Sipe’kneketik First Nation. Mr. Maloney was a chief investigator in the Saskatoon freezing deaths of Indigenous people who were picked up by police officers and dropped off on the outskirts of the city in the 1990s and early 2000s, in what became known as Starlight Tours.

“These boys could’ve been dead,” he said. “There is no reconciliation when you hear stories like this. It cannot happen. It’s impossible.”

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