Skip to main content
opinion

There was a powerful moment during Nishnawbe Aski Nation’s virtually attended general assembly council meeting, when Sipekne’katik First Nation Chief Mike Sack – who called in using a cellular phone – thanked the 49 northern Ontario chiefs and asked for prayers to keep his people safe.

Chief Sack felt so urgently that the Canadian government, the justice system and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police were missing in action that he needed to ask for the power of love and divine intervention.

In recent weeks, Chief Sack and Mi’kmaq fishermen and women in Nova Scotia have faced domestic terror, whether the RCMP calls it that or not: Racist mobs seized and vandalized traps, burned vehicles and set their warehouse on fire.

The inept, callous behaviour by the Canadian government and the RCMP once again proves the extent of racism in this country, how it permeates into every department and organization and drives a wedge between us.

Police forces have the duty to protect all citizens – not just the non-Indigenous ones. How does RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki still have her job, after recently waffling on recognizing systemic racism in her ranks, and now her force’s failure to protect the Sipekne’katik?

Time and time again, Canada misunderstands what treaty rights are. Without these nation-to-nation agreements, Canadians would not have a country. These treaties have built this country and ensured non-Indigenous people could settle here and prosper. But both the Crown and government have carried on, since Confederation, as if the treaties are meaningless or simply do not exist.

It’s through these lenses that the Mi’kmaq view another declaration from the Crown. Twenty-one years ago, in two rulings known as the Marshall decisions, the Supreme Court of Canada said that, due to the treaties signed in 1760 and 1761 between the Crown and the Mi’kmaq, Maliseet and Passamaquoddy First Nations, the Mi’kmaq have a constitutional right to hunt, fish and gather for a “moderate livelihood.”

But ultimately and fundamentally, what the Supreme Court told the Mi’kmaq fishers was this: They hold a constitutionally protected right to fish in their own jurisdiction. Period.

There are many problems with the “moderate livelihood” limitation, explains Sara Mainville, a partner at the lawfirm Olthuis Kleer Townshend and former chief of Couchiching First Nation. It is, she says, “subjective, and that nature makes it illegitimate from both angles – as a treaty jurisdiction, why do we have to ensure we have a ‘cap’ on our exercise of a treaty protected commercial right?” And, as a Crown jurisdiction, “no one else has a similar cap or limitation.”

How is it possible to manage a moderate livelihood in a regulated environment where exploiting the resource without a worry about moderation is what large profit-focused companies are doing?

If Canada suddenly comes to the Mi’kmaq with a definition of what “moderate livelihood” means, decades later – well, good luck with that. The Mi’kmaq will decide, as is their right and as the treaties make clear. The courts and government have lost the privilege to outline what it means. The Mi’kmaq are acting as their own regulators, and should be allowed to do so.

Chief Sack told the NAN council that the Sipekne’katik are having a hard time with the “DFO protecting our people on the water,” and he implored Indigenous leaders to hold the DFO and the RCMP “accountable for their lack of actions.” If the Atlantic provinces were not closed off in a COVID-19 bubble, no doubt Indigenous people from nations across the country would have descended on St. Mary’s Bay.

Canada continually fails to understand that First Nations people have a right to hunt and protect the land. That’s laid out in our treaties, but it’s also embedded in our bones. For thousands of years, First Nations never took more than what was needed. The spirit of protection and conservation is in our identity; we provide for ourselves and if we have extra, we share.

Of course, conservation isn’t really a valid argument against the Sipekne’katik’s claim. They are not wreaking havoc on the East Coast lobster population. They have seven fishing licenses and are only using three, for a total of 150 traps, according to APTN. Even the DFO has said they pose no danger to destroying the stock. Still, we have to scrape and claw against bad-faith arguments, just to get what is owed to us.

Toward the end of Chief Sack’s call with the NAN chiefs, he passed around his cellphone to the assembled Sipekne’katik council members so they could introduce themselves to the national representatives. When Councillor Gavin Michael took the phone, he talked about being a fisherman himself “that is out there, doing it.” Then he added: “The boys are getting tired, the fisherwomen are getting tired down here, we appreciate all the support we can get.”

It would be appreciated if all Canadians did the right thing, for the good of the entire country, and stood up and behind the Sipekne’katik, too. Until then, all Chief Sack can do is pray.

Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.