Source: Canadian Press/Andrew Vaughan

A massive conflict has erupted in the lobster fishery in Nova Scotia, where Mi’kmaq fishermen are being subjected to harassment, violence, and vandalism. Just over the last two weeks, the boat of one was set on fire, their lobster catch was stolen or destroyed, and a lobster pound that does business with Indigenous fishermen was set on fire. The RCMP, unsurprisingly, is doing nothing to prevent this from happening. As if this was not enough, one non-Indigenous fisherman directly assaulted Michael Sack, the chief of the Sipekne’katik First Nation. These disgusting racist attacks have caused shockwaves across Canada.

How did we get here? What is the best path to uphold Indigenous rights and find a way out of this crisis?

Indigenous rights under attack

One month ago, on Sept. 17, the Sipekne’katik First Nation launched its self-managed lobster fishing season, based on its right to a “moderate livelihood” fishery recognized by a Supreme Court ruling in 1999. 

At that time, the Supreme Court ruled that Donald Marshall, an Indigenous man accused of illegally fishing eel out of season, had the right to fish. This was due to the “Peace and Friendship Treaties” signed by the Indigenous peoples and the British Crown between 1725 and 1779. The “Marshall decision” recognized the Indigenous right to a “moderate livelihood” fishery.

Was this right upheld by the Canadian state? No. What “moderate livelihood” means was never even defined. In typical fashion, the Canadian state has avoided giving Indigenous people well-defined rights, leaving the door open to conflict with them. 

This situation led to the tragic Burnt Church crisis. Between 1999 and 2002, the Indigenous people of the Esgenoôpetitj First Nation in New Brunswick faced violent attacks from the RCMP and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) as they were exercising their recognized right to fish lobster. Tension with non-Indigenous fishermen reached fever pitch. The federal government claimed that the fishery was illegal, even though the Marshall decision had just recognized its legality.

Today, 20 years later, Indigenous rights are still trampled underfoot. The launch of this year’s fishing season was immediately met with the anger of non-Indigenous fishermen and racist attacks. About 60 of their boats were out waiting for the Indigenous fishermen right from the start. They pulled the Indigenous traps out of the water or cut their lines. 

As Indigenous fishermen are subjected to disgusting violence, the police are doing absolutely nothing to defend the Indigenous people—not that we expected them to. When the Indigenous fishermen started their season in September, Colin Sproul, president of the Bay of Fundy Inshore Fishermen’s Association, even said: 

“The gear that we were collecting was what was in violation of the law. There’s nothing more to show that fishermen have the true, just, lawful position here than the fact that we conducted that activity yesterday and nobody stopped us.” (Our emphasis)

Then again, on Oct. 14, the RCMP stood by while an Indigenous fisherman was being intimidated, slurred at and having his lobster destroyed by non-Indigenous fishermen. One RCMP officer even told him: “There are over 120 of them out here. There’s nothing we can do to protect you. All we can do is get you out of here and leave. We can’t protect you.” 

Indeed, the police are not there to protect the oppressed. One only has to compare how the RCMP reacted to these acts against the Mi’kmaq with the way they treated the Wet’suwet’en in February this year to understand which side they are on. 

Why the anger?

The Sipekne’katik Nation, just like the Indigenous peoples of Canada in general, are facing abject poverty and lack of employment opportunities. This is why they are asserting their fishing rights. Chief Sack explained shortly before the start of the fishery: “I see it as people putting a winter coat on their children’s backs.” Another Indigenous fisherman said: “There is no opportunity in Shubie. Our community is in poverty. Three to four families in a house. We’re tired of it. We’re just here trying to make that change.”

Tragically, the non-Indigenous fishermen are pitted against Indigenous people that are merely trying to survive. Why is this?

One of the main arguments put forward by representatives of non-Indigenous fishermen is that the Indigenous fishery is endangering lobster conservation. This is because Sipekne’katik fishermen are putting traps in the water and fishing lobster outside the commercial fishing season, which runs from November to the end of May. What is the reality?

Indigenous fishermen currently operate in Lobster Fishing Area 34 (LFA 34). This is the most lucrative area in the province. There are 979 fishing licenses for this area, and vessels can set between 375 and 400 traps, for a total of more than 390,000 traps. In comparison, the 500 traps set by Indigenous fishers amount to next to nothing. 

But if conservation is a tenuous argument in this context, what then is causing such frustration among non-Indigenous fishermen? One only needs to look at the impact of COVID-19 on the industry to understand. 

The 2019-2020 fishing season has been greatly disrupted by the virus, and the market has collapsed. The price of lobster in LFAs 33 and 34 went from $10 in January to $5 at the end of the season in May. Some fishers had already hauled in their traps days before the official end of the season. The market collapse is not only affecting fishermen, but all workers in the industry. There are more than 15,000 workers that depend on fisheries in Nova Scotia. 

It should not be forgotten that lobster fishermen go into massive debt in order to earn their living. A fishing licence can cost as much as $1 million, in addition to several hundred thousand dollars for a boat and other gear. This creates a drive to catch as much as possible during the season in what is described as a “rush to fish”. 

When the fishery is going well, when demand is high and prices are good, then everything is fine. But when a disaster like COVID-19 and the economic crisis it triggered strikes, then anxiety rises, considering the huge debts incurred by fishermen. Cindy Comeau, a non-Indigenous fisherwoman, says: “There’s nothing left at this end of the province. Forestry’s gone, the mink farms are gone, and when this fishing is going there’ll be nothing left for our children.” 

Tragically, the fishermen’s fears lead some of them to carry out acts of racist violence against the Indigenous fishermen. The few hundred traps of the Indigenous fishermen are perceived as a threat. This is definitely the wrong target. 

Who benefits?

One aspect of the question that has been overlooked is what is happening in LFA 41, an offshore fishing area just beside the inshore LFA 34. In LFA 41, Clearwater Seafoods, a company owned by Nova Scotia’s richest billionaire John Risley, has a monopoly over the eight fishing licences in that area.

While the non-Indigenous and Indigenous inshore fishermen are in a conflict more than 20 years in the making because of government inaction, this multi-million dollar company has actively benefited from special treatment from the various governments. Clearwater received $4.7 million in loans (some non-repayable) from governments between 2014 and 2018. This is also a company that doesn’t abide by the 72-hour time limit for gear to be in the water unattended. They conduct their own scientific research and keeps the results for themselves. While a thousand fishermen are in a race against each other for several months in LFA 34, Clearwater is allowed to fish year-round, for a total quota of 720 tons of lobster.

Moreover, in what was called a “gross violation” of fisheries regulations, Clearwater has also been convicted for “storing 3,800 lobster traps on the ocean bottom off the Nova Scotia coast for upward of two months in the fall of 2017.” However, there is no hue and cry over this real threat to conservation.

In addition, having created their own management plan for LFA 41 in the 1980s, they are now capitalizing massively on their monopoly. The company recently made $25 million by selling two of their licences. “So Clearwater got access to that public resource for no money, and now they’re selling it for a tonne of money”, says Susanna Fuller, vice-president, Operations and Projects of Oceans North

Thus, while Indigenous and non-Indigenous fishermen are pitted against each other, the big companies like Clearwater pass unnoticed. As always under capitalism, when Indigenous rights are concerned, it is the big companies that come out victorious. As explained in a recent insightful article by the Council of Canadians:

Clearwater and both levels of Canadian government benefit from the long delay in action on the Marshall Decision because they have not had to relinquish any control over the fishery during that time, and have been able to consolidate power and access to wealth through LFA 41. Additionally, the level of confusion and unrest surrounding the conflict in St Mary’s Bay provides a distraction from this consolidation and lack of action on Mi’kmaq rights.

Clearwater is also one of the big corporations that are making huge profits out of packing and processing seafood. This is a multi-billion dollar industry led by some of the world’s biggest operators, who have every interest in squeezing the fishermen by giving them low prices for their catch in order to increase their profits. This even led to a strike of fishermen from LFA 33 and 34 in 2012, when they were in conflict with Clearwater and others in an attempt to get a better price for their lobster.

Thus, on one side we have a big corporation with a monopoly over a fishing area, operating under different rules than everyone else. The processing and packing is run by the very same corporation, together with other big players. In the middle, Indigenous and non-Indigenous small-scale fishermen are left to fight over a finite resource. There can be no lasting solution under this setup, in which big companies are the only winners. 

Working class solidarity needed

Source: Canadian Press/Andrew Vaughan

Some on the left are trying to portray the conflict as the “settler” fishermen versus the Indigenous fishermen. This identity politics approach would be directly harmful to the struggle if it were to be adopted. Portraying non-Indigenous fishermen as “settlers” against the Indigenous fishermen, in fact, directly plays into the hands of the racists. In reality, while denouncing racism, the Indigenous fishermen are trying not to make this a conflict against the non-Indigenous fishermen. 

Chief Sack, for example, said: “Our issue is not with the commercial fishermen. We have an issue with the levels of government that are not upholding our rights.” It is the same thing with the non-Indigenous fishermen: “Our issue is not with Indigenous people, it is with the government,” said Colin Sproul. Unfortunately, this has not prevented the conflict from translating into violent attacks against the Indigenous fishermen. But it does show that the federal government is the real enemy against which all workers should aim their fire.

As usual, the federal Liberals are being complete hypocrites. A joint statement of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada and Fisheries and Oceans Canada of Sept. 23 states

“Reconciliation is a Canadian imperative and we all have a role to play in it. What is occurring does not advance this goal, nor does it support the implementation of First Nation treaty rights, or a productive and orderly fishery.”

But Indigenous leaders are not satisfied with these slick words. Sack said, “Until they actually implement it, it’s kind of just lip service.” The Liberals have become experts in paying lip service to Indigenous rights, while denying them in practice. Despite their alleged defence of Indigenous rights, nothing is being done except making empty declarations. As usual, their words of “reconciliation” and their actions are in total contradiction. Absolutely nothing can be expected from the federal government.

Chief Sack called on Oct. 17 for the military to come in to keep peace. However, history has shown that the armed forces of the Canadian state are not there to uphold Indigenous rights—quite the contrary. The Canadian state was built on the subjugation of Indigenous people, and we can in no way count on it for help. Instead of appealing to the state, we should aim to get the labour movement actively involved on the side of the oppressed. 

It has become a common feature in the labour movement to make routine land acknowledgements to show support to Indigenous peoples. But now is the time for meaningful action. The organized labour movement of Nova Scotia must take up the fight. A good start would be to mobilize and organize a mass demonstration in Saulnierville, where the Indigenous fishermen are trying to uphold their rights. By having non-Indigenous workers together with the Indigenous fishermen on the wharf, it would send a strong message of solidarity and help combat the really bigoted fishermen committing racist acts. This could be used to explain that fishermen who are in debt for hundreds of thousands of dollars are completely wrong in turning their anger against their Indigenous counterparts.

It is entirely possible to mobilize in solidarity with the Indigenous fishermen. As an example, there have already been two recent demonstrations attended by hundreds of people in Halifax in solidarity with the Mi’kmaq. The labour movement has colossal resources at its disposal to put into solidarity actions with the Indigenous fishermen. It is time to show solidarity in deeds and not only in words!

No solution under the capitalist status quo

The reality is that the federal government has been putting off resolving the dispute for 21 years. In the early 2000s, the Liberals had no problem crushing Indigenous people at Burnt Church. But this time, their mask of “reconciliation” prevents them from doing so, at least for now. We can’t trust the Liberals to stand up for Indigenous rights. The capitalist parties that have been in power for decades are responsible for having sown the seeds of racist violence.

What can be the solution to the impasse? 

The capitalist system offers no solution. Moreover, some say that corporate interests are pushing to take an even bigger slice of the pie. Fuller says that a real threat to inshore fishermen is the corporate buying up of licences. Cory Francis, a candidate for chief of the Acadia First Nation, says that there is an agenda to “sell out the inshore fishery into an overall corporate entity.” He adds: “Inshore fishermen are scared shitless. And they should be. They really should be.” 

As for the Indigenous fishermen, they are left with crumbs. And why should Indigenous people be limited to a “moderate livelihood” in the first place? We want Indigenous people to have all their needs fully met, not just “moderately” met.

There really is no lasting solution to this under a system driven by profit. The current setup of the lobster fishery is a mess, with big companies like Clearwater getting privileges, and small-scale fishermen being pitted against Indigenous fishermen. 

The labour movement must put up the call for nationalization of the processing and packing corporations, starting with companies like Clearwater, under the control of the workers. By getting the profit motive out of the fishing industry, we could manage this resource in order to truly meet conservation concerns. Within the framework of a nationalized fisheries sector, it would be entirely possible to integrate fishing led by Indigenous communities with the work of fishermen that are not driven by the pressure of catching and selling as much as possible to cover costs and pay huge debts. By creating thousands of well-paid jobs, it is likely that many of those who are currently fishing would choose another, less dangerous occupation. This would put an end to the fight over a finite resource. But none of this can happen while capitalism stays in place. Within capitalism, we have the chaos of the market, job losses, and a fight over crumbs.

For too long, the Indigenous peoples in Canada have been oppressed and exploited by corporate interests with the active backing of the Canadian state. It is time the labour movement and oppressed groups unite to overthrow them both.