United Nations committee seeks answers from Canada over racism, violence against Mi’kmaw fishers

Mi'kmaw fishers observe non-Indigenous lobster boats nearby on Sept. 17, 2020/Photo by Stephen Brake

A United Nations committee is seeking answers from Canada regarding the racism and violence Mi’kmaw lobster fishers experienced while they exercised their treaty right to fish for a moderate livelihood in Nova Scotia last fall.

In a letter dated April 30, the chair for the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) asked Leslie Norton, Canada’s permanent representative to the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland to explain what Canada has done to:

  • Investigate alleged acts of racism, violence and vandalism against Mi’kmaw fishers and supporters
  • Investigate alleged lack of response by officers with the RCMP and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans to protect Mi’kmaw people
  • Prevent further acts of violence, racist hate speech, incitement of violence and destruction of property against Mi’kmaw people
  • Respect, protect and guarantee the rights of Mi’kmaw people right to fish and be consulted
Leslie Norton is Canada’s UN Permanent Representative in Geneva, Switzerland/Photo via Twitter

The CERD chair has also requested that Canada “provide details on the status of the treaties concluded between 1760 and 1761 and the implementation of Mi’kmaq fishing rights under such treaties.”

The UN committee has given Norton until July 14 to provide a response.

The letter, written by committee chair Yanduan Li, was in response to a formal submission the committee received under its Early Warning and Urgent Action Procedure on behalf of several Mi’kmaw fishers from the Sipekne’katik First Nation.

The submission, prepared by three Indigenous lawyers and a human rights expert, included details and evidence of alleged human rights violations against Mi’kmaw fishers while they exercised their treaty right to earn a moderate livelihood from the lobster fishery during the fall of 2020 in southwestern Nova Scotia.

“It’s about calling attention to both Canada and Canadians that something isn’t right here and Canada needs to come to the table in a good way,” said Pam Palmater, a Mi’kmaw lawyer and one of the authors of the formal submission to the UN.

“For every allegation that we made, we provided them with documentary evidence. Most of it came from the government itself,” Palmater explained during a news conference on Monday.

Mi’kmaw lawyer Pam Palmater, far right, was one of the authors of the formal submission made to the UN CERD on behalf of Sipekne’katik fishers/Photo contributed by Pam Palmater

The treaty right to a “moderate livelihood”

The treaty right to fish to earn a moderate livelihood was affirmed in the 1999 Supreme Court of Canada decision in the Donald Marshall, Jr. fishing rights case. Marshall, a Mi’kmaq from the Membertou First Nation, was charged with catching and selling eels without a license in Pomquet Harbour, N.S. in 1993.

In its decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the Peace and Friendship treaties of 1760-61 signed between the Mi’kmaq, Wolastoq and Peskotomukati and the British crown guaranteed Marshall’s right to catch and sell fish.

In a rare second ruling in Nov. 1999, the Supreme Court clarified that the federal government can regulate the treaty right “where justified on conservation or other grounds.” However, the high court stated that the people covered under the treaty are entitled to be consulted before the limitation on their right is imposed.

Sipekne’katik Chief Michael Sack at the wharf in Saulnierville, N.S. on Sept 17, 2020/Photo by Stephen Brake

Tired of waiting for DFO to begin talks to define a moderate livelihood, the Sipekne’katik First Nation launched its own moderate livelihood fishery in Sept. 2020 on the wharf in Saulnierville, N.S.

The move sparked heated opposition from non-Indigenous lobster fishers who believe Mi’kmaw fishers should only set lobster traps during commercial fishing seasons set out by DFO. Mi’kmaw fishers were subjected to harassment in St. Mary’s Bay and on the wharves in Weymouth and Saulnierville. The harassment escalated to acts of racism, violence and vandalism.

UN CERD chair cites allegations against Canada in letter

In the letter to Norton, CERD chair Yanduan Li referred to several allegations listed in the formal submission on behalf of the Sipekne’katik fishers.

“Despite being aware of the high risk of violence, the competent Canadian authorities – in particular the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) – failed to take appropriate measures to prevent these acts of violence and to protect the Mi’kmaw fishers and their properties from being vandalized,” Yanduan Li wrote.

United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland/ Photo by Vassil via Creative Commons

“It is claimed that Canadian authorities have also failed to fully investigate the allegations of racially motivated harassment, racist hate speech and incitement of racist violence online, violence and intimidation by private actors against Mi’kmaw human rights defenders and fishers,” she wrote.

“According to the allegations received, Provincial and Federal governments have failed to fully respect the treaty based right of the Mi’kmaw peoples to their traditional fishing activities,” Yanduan Li wrote.

“I have post-traumatic stress from that stuff” – Jason Marr

In one of the incidents listed in the formal submission to the UN, Sipekne’katik fishermen Jason Marr and Randy Sack drove from the wharf in Saulnierville to a lobster pound in West Pubnico, N.S. on Oct. 13, 2020 to store their lobsters when they received word that an angry mob was on their way to the wharf to seize their catch.

Mi’kmaw lobster harvesters Jason Marr, left, and Randy Sack/Photo by Stephen Brake

When they reached the pound in West Pubnico, another angry crowd surrounded the pound and the crowd threatened to set the pound on fire unless Marr and Sack turned over their catch and leave. Marr’s vehicle was vandalized while the two waited inside for police to arrive.

“I called 9-1-1 that night and it took (the RCMP) two hours to come,” Marr said in the news conference. “That 9-1-1 is an international number for distress and emergency services but it don’t work for us.”

“Who polices the police and who governs the government?” he asked. “I have post-traumatic stress from that stuff.”

UN could hold Canada accountable at International level – Palmater

Palmater said the formal submission to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination is one way to hold Canada accountable to the racial violence experienced by the Mi’kmaw fishers.

“We knew that it wasn’t just going to end in the fall, that there’s always going to be fishing in the future and our people are at risk,” Palmater explained.

“So by engaging in this process now, we knew that there could, at least, be some kind of action at the international level to hold Canada to account.”

Palmater said the formal submission was sent specifically to UN CERD because “they have an early warning and urgent action procedure to help when we’re in the middle of a crisis.”

’The fact that they gave it, Canadians should be very cognizant of the fact that they do consider this an urgent situation of potential human rights violations,” Palmater said.

Sipekne’katik Chief Mike Sack/Photo by Stephen Brake

Sipekne’katik Chief Mike Sack said he was happy to see the letter from the UN committee.

“It shows some hope that Canada has to answer for their actions or their lack of actions,” Chief Sack said on Monday.

“I just hope that it keeps a spotlight on the RCMP and the DFO to ensure that they’re doing their job to protect everyone, not just a biased approach to it,” he said.

In an email response, the office of the Permanent Mission of Canada to the United Nations in Geneva confirmed it has received the letter from the chair of the UN CERD regarding the events that took place last fall in Nova Scotia.

“The Government of Canada takes the allegations raised in the letter, including allegations of racist violence against the Mi’kmaq peoples in Nova Scotia, seriously and will respond to the Committee’s inquiry,” the office wrote.

“Responses from State parties to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination under its early warning and urgent action procedure are confidential.”

*Note: This story was updated on May 12, 2021 to include a response from the Permanent Mission of Canada to the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland.

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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.