Mi’kmaw leaders accuse DFO of racism after fishermen were forced to walk at night without phones, shoes

Blaise Sylliboy and Kevin Hartling/Photo by Stephen Brake

Mi’kmaw leaders are accusing Fishery and Oceans Canada, or DFO, of systemic racism after two Mi’kmaw fishermen from Unama’ki (Cape Breton) were forced to walk along the highway at night without their phones and shoes after fishery officers seized their belongings.

They’re demanding DFO fire the two fishery officers accused of taking Blaise Sylliboy and Kevin Hartling’s phones and footwear before dropping them at a gas station in Shelburne, N.S.

“There should be action taken against these individuals who perpetrated this crime against the two men,” We’koqma’q Chief Annie Bernard-Daisley said. “They should lose their jobs.”

Millbrook First Nation Chief Bob Gloade/Photo by Stephen Brake

“It’s inhumane. It’s unacceptable,” Millbrook Chief Bob Gloade said of the fishermen’s treatment by DFO. “The treatment of these two individuals in our communities, (they) were treated with total disrespect.”

In a news release dated Mar. 28, the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaw Chiefs stated the incident “shows how the systemic racism within DFO and the federal government must be addressed.”

Protest held near DFO office in Dartmouth

A group gathered near the DFO office in Dartmouth on Apr. 2 to protest the department’s treatment of Sylliboy and Hartling and to show their support for the two young men.

Several supporters, including Chief Bernard-Daisley, removed their shoes and stood on the cold ground wearing only socks to show solidarity with the Mi’kmaw fishermen and the ordeal they suffered.

Chief Bernard-Daisley and Millbrook First Nation Chief Bob Gloade demanded that DFO meet with Nova Scotia chiefs to discuss Syllilboy’s and Hartling’s treatment by the fishery officers.

We’koqma’q First Nation Chief Annie Bernard-Daisley, right, with Blaise Sylliboy, centre, and Kevin Hartling, left/Photo by Stephen Brake

In March, DFO closed the lucrative elver eel fishing season for 2024 in the Maritimes to curb unauthorized fishing as well as prevent threats of violence and harassment between harvesters and towards fishery officers.

Both the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaw Chiefs and the Wolastoqey Chiefs in New Brunswick have condemned DFO’s decision, stating the elver eel fishery closure infringes on their members’ treaty right to earn a moderate livelihood from catching and selling fish.

DFO officers seized fishermen’s phones, waders

Sylliboy, from the Eskasoni First Nation in Unama’ki, explained to supporters what happened to him and Hartling on the evening of Mar. 26 while they were fishing for elver eels, or baby eels, along a river near Shelburne.

The 25-year-old said they were fishing with two other community members when DFO officers arrived. The two other men fled with their truck while he and Hartling ran into the woods.

Sylliboy said he and Hartling eventually surrendered to the fishery officers and were both handcuffed. He said the officers confiscated their phones, fishing gear and the waders they were wearing, leaving them with only the socks on their feet.

When Sylliboy asked why the fishery officers were taking his waders, the officer told him it was for “investigation purposes.”

“I said, man, I have no footwear. It just rained. This is crazy,” Sylliboy said.

Kevin Hartling and Blaise Sylliboy/Photo by Stephen Brake

At one point, Sylliboy said an RCMP officer did arrive at the scene and had a conversation with the fishery officers about the situation before leaving.

Fishermen in “disbelief” over treatment

Sylliboy said the fishery officers placed the pair in the truck, drove them to a gas station in Shelburne, and dropped them off without their phones or footwear.

He said the pair were not permitted to remain at the gas station, so they began walking along the highway towards Liverpool overnight in the cold and rain with only socks on their feet.

“Kevin and I are like, in disbelief,” Sylliboy said.

He said an ambulance attendant pulled over to check on them but did not offer them a ride. The attendant did allow Sylliboy to use his phone to call his mother in Eskasoni.

A driver eventually offered the men a drive back to a coffee shop in Shelburne. Someone later arrived and drove the pair back home to Eskasoni and Membertou.

Sylliboy said he followed his cousin’s advice and posted what happened to him and Hartling on Facebook.

“(DFO officers) could have done better, man. Like they could have taken me to a dispatch centre,” Sylliboy said. “Like taking my phone without a search warrant and no papers shown.”

“Was it a (hate) crime or just what? I’m just speechless myself. I don’t know what to say” Sylliboy said of his ordeal.

Protesters removed shoes to show support to Blaise Sylliboy and Kevin Hartling during a protest Apr. 2, 2024/Photo by Stephen Brake

DFO, RCMP confirm fishermen’s ordeal

In a written statement, DFO confirmed that fishery officers “arrested and later released two individuals for infractions of the Fisheries Act related to elver fishing in Shelburne County” on Mar. 26.

The department also confirmed the officers contacted the RCMP for assistance in tracking “down a vehicle suspected to be associated with the individuals.”

The RCMP confirmed that officers with the Shelburne detachment located the pickup truck the two other fishermen were driving. Officers charged a 20-year-old Eskasoni man with driving with a suspended driver’s licence and seized the truck. Another officer “provided transportation” to three men. The RCMP later released the truck when the owner contacted them.

The RCMP also confirmed that “a partner agency had spotted” the pair and “confirmed that they were not injured or lost.”

“The RCMP did not have any contact with the two men arrested by DFO under the Fisheries Act,” an RCMP spokesperson wrote.

Prime Minister says an investigation is needed

During a housing announcement in Dartmouth on Apr. 2, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the details of the fishermen’s ordeal were disturbing.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau/Photo by Stephen Brake

“Obviously, this story is extremely troubling which is why there is a need for a full investigation on this,” Prime Minister Trudeau said while protesters yelled “Honour the treaties” and chanted in the background.

“It’s important that the laws against illegal fishing be enforced but there are processes and protocols in place and the way enforcement officers need to behave,” Trudeau said.

“We need to make sure (that) was properly followed because these reports are very troubling,” he said.

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About Maureen Googoo 270 Articles
Maureen Googoo is an award-winning journalist from Indian Brook First Nation (Sipekne'katik) in Nova Scotia. She has worked in news more than 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.