A Mi’kmaw fisherman is fighting the same fishery charges his father faced 20 years ago

Leon Robinson and his son, Leon Knockwood/Photo by Stephen Brake
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A young Mi’kmaw man from Nova Scotia is vowing to fight fishery charges against him like his father did 20 years ago.

Leon Knockwood, who is from Sipekne’katik First Nation, N.S. has been charged with two counts of failing to comply with a commercial fishing licence, fish for lobster without authorization and unlawful possession of fish. According to court documents, the alleged offences happened near Weymouth, N.S. on Nov. 26, 2018.

Knockwood, 24, says he plans to use his treaty right to fish to earn a moderate livelihood to defend himself in court.

“I know my rights as a Mi’kmaw,” Knockwood said. “I know I’m allowed to do this,” he added.

Leon Knockwood/Photo by Stephen Brake

The charges against Knockwood are the same charges his father, Leon Robinson, faced 20 years earlier. Robinson was charged with fishery offences in the fall of 1999 shortly after the Supreme Court of Canada decision in the Marshall fishing rights case.

Robinson 44, says he is upset that after 20 years, the issue of his treaty right to fish to earn a moderate livelihood is still unresolved.

“I think we should have been managing ourselves. Like all this should be run through our council or something, our fisheries,” Robinson said.

20 years since the Marshall decision

On Sept. 17, 1999, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that Mi’kmaq, Wolastoqiyik and Peskotomuhkati have a treaty right to earn a moderate livelihood from the fishery.

The case involved Donald Marshall, Jr. from Membertou First Nation, N.S. who was charged with catching and selling eels on the wharf in Pomquet Harbour, N.S. in 1993. Marshall’s lawyers successfully argued to the Supreme Court of Canada that he had a treaty right to catch and sell fish under the Peace and Friendship treaties of 1760-61.

Donald Marshall, Jr., left, with Mi’kmaq Grand Chief Sylliboy at a news conference in Halifax Sept. 17, 1999. The Supreme Court of Canada released its ruling that day which found Marshall had a treaty right to catch and sell fish for a living/Photo by Maureen Googoo

In reaction to the court decision, DFO entered into interim commercial fishing agreements with most of the First Nations in the Maritimes. In those agreements, DFO provided commercial fishing licenses and funding for those First Nation communities for gear, boats, and training. In return, the First Nations agreed to only fish during the commercial fishing season.

However, DFO only started meeting with First Nation communities covered under the 1760-61 treaties in late 2017 to define what a moderate livelihood fishery means.

“I have no idea why they needed 12-15 fishery officers” – Leon Knockwood

According to Knockwood, he was on his last day of lobster fishing in St. Mary’s Bay on Nov. 26 when DFO officers confronted him and two other fishermen on the wharf near Weymouth, N.S. He said he just finished loading up his father’s pickup truck with his fishing gear and several crates filled with lobsters when four DFO trucks drove onto the wharf.

“There was only three of us. I have no idea why they needed 12-15 fishery officers,” Knockwood explained.

Fishery officers seized eight crates filled with lobsters, 20 lobster traps and his father’s truck.

Lobsters/Photo by Stephen Brake

Knockwood wasn’t charged with fishery offences until several months later. His first court appearance was on Sept. 12.

A spokesperson with DFO declined to comment on the charges against Knockwood while the case is proceeding through the courts.

The young fisherman said the confrontation with DFO officers brought back memories of him witnessing his father being assaulted and arrested by fishery officers on the wharf in New Edinburgh, N.S. when he was four years old.

“I saw my dad in a confrontation with DFO. I saw him jump to their boats and get beaten, basically with batons and night sticks,” Knockwood recalled. “I was scared and terrified.”

“As soon as I saw the officers, (the memory) immediately popped in my head. The last time I saw them take people’s lobsters, they beat my dad up with night sticks,” Knockwood said.

Robinson described fishery officers confronting him and several other Mi’kmaw fishermen on wharf in New Edinburgh in late 1999.

Leon Robinson/Photo by Stephen Brake

“They came with riot gear. They said they felt they had to approach us this way, in that manner,” Robinson said.

Robinson was charged with fishing illegally and was fined $15,000. Despite his conviction, Robinson says still practices his treaty right to fish for a moderate livelihood by setting lobster traps in St. Mary’s Bay.

The 44-year-old father says he’s also been educating his son about his treaty rights to fish while he waits for his next court appearance.

“We’re watching videos of my grandmother talking about fishing down here in Digby and living in Digby,” Robinson said.

“I’ve been getting him to read the treaties and stuff and he’s been taking right to it,” he added.

“This is what all communities want to attain” – Membertou Chief Terrance Paul

Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq Chiefs Co-Chair Terrance Paul says he understands the frustration of Mi’kmaw fishers like Knockwood and Robinson as they try to exercise their treaty right to catch and sell fish.

“I don’t blame them for going out fishing. Like, it’s been 20 years since the decision and we still haven’t been able to get access to a livelihood fishery,” Membertou Chief Paul said.

“This is what all communities want to attain,” he added.

Membertou Chief Terrance Paul/Photo by Stephen Brake

Chief Paul said DFO officers should not be harassing and charging Mi’kmaw fishers for practicing their treaty right. Instead, DFO should be educating the general public on the treaty right to a moderate livelihood fishery.

“I think the best way to resolve this is to sit down with the government and the industry to ensure that we safely get access to the livelihood fishery,” Chief Paul said.

Since 2018, the ANSMC has been meeting with DFO federal negotiator Jim Jones to define what a moderate livelihood means to Mi’kmaw people. However, Chief Paul says no agreement has been reached.

“All the communities in Nova Scotia haven’t signed onto anything. We’re not about to sign onto anything until we’re satisfied,” he said.

Meanwhile, the ANSMC is currently holding meetings in First Nation communities to discuss the issue of a moderate livelihood fishery. Chief Paul said the ANSMC hopes to come up with a plan that is acceptable to the communities while at the same time, establish rules to access that fishery.

Leon Knockwood/Photo by Stephen Brake

Despite the charges against him, Knockwood continues to set lobster traps in St. Mary’s Bay while he waits for his next court appearance at Digby Provincial Court in mid-November.

“Not many Native people have the funds to go and buy a license for lobster fishing. All we got is our rights,” Knockwood said. “Let us fish. Let us make a living.”

“I hope our leaders push, like really push for this because without it, I don’t know what I’d be doing if I wasn’t down here fishing. I really don’t,” Knockwood said.


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About Maureen Googoo 226 Articles
Maureen Googoo is an award-winning journalist from Indian Brook First Nation (Sipekne'katik) in Nova Scotia. She has worked in news for 30 years for media outlets such as CBC Radio, the Chronicle-Herald and the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network. Maureen has an arts degree in political science from Saint Mary's University in Halifax, a journalism degree from Ryerson University in Toronto and a Masters degree in journalism from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York City.