Robert Syliboy said he was reluctant to drop his lobster traps in St. Mary’s Bay this week.
“If I put my gear in the water today, it would likely be gone by tomorrow,” the Mi’kmaw fisherman said on Thursday.
Syliboy, a member of the Sipekne’katik First Nation in Nova Scotia, said his community’s decision to delay the start of its own fishery this week was the smart thing to do for now.
“The tension between the commercial fishermen and the Mi’kmaw fishermen, it’s still pretty high,” he said.
Sipekne’katik Chief Mike Sack said concerns over safety is the main reason he and council members decided to postpone the start of the First Nation’s fishery for the time being.
“We didn’t get any clear indication that the RCMP were going to be there to protect our people or anything,” Chief Sack said on Wednesday.
“We’ve only had three or four (fishers) that could actually be there and we wanted a bigger number for safety reasons,” he said.
In April, Sipekne’katik announced this year’s plan to run its own moderate livelihood fishery in St. Mary’s Bay in southwestern Nova Scotia starting June 1.
That plan was then modified in late May to just fish under the community’s communal license to fish for food, social and ceremonial purposes over concerns officers with Fisheries and Oceans Canada would seize lobster traps without the FSC tags.
Lobster Fishing Area 34 in St. Mary’s Bay is currently closed to commercial fishing until the last week in November.
Mi’kmaw harvesters experienced racism, violence
The Sipekne’katik First Nation first launched its moderate livelihood fishery at Saulnierville on Sept. 17, 2020, the 21st anniversary of the Supreme Court of Canada decision in the Donald Marshall, Jr. fishing rights case. In that decision, the court ruled that the Mi’kmaq, Wolastoqiyik and Peskotomuhkati have a treaty right to earn a moderate livelihood from catching and selling fish.
Sipekne’katik’s decision to fish under its own management plan was met with opposition from Fisheries and Oceans Canada and local non-Indigenous commercial fishers who wanted the Mi’kmaw lobster harvesters to commercially fish only during federally regulated fishing seasons.
Mi’kmaw harvesters were subjected to racism, harassment, intimidation, violence and vandalism while on the waters and on shore in the days and weeks following the start of their moderate livelihood fishery.
Many of them had their traps and gear stolen or vandalized. A lobster pound in New Edinburgh, N.S. where the harvesters had planned to store their catch was also vandalized while another one in West Pubnico, N.S. was burned to the ground.
RCMP charged several people with assault following confrontations with Mi’kmaw harvesters and their supporters and non-Indigenous commercial harvesters at a lobster pound in New Edinburgh, N.S.
“It was a lot of stress” – Robert Syliboy
Several Mi’kmaw lobster harvesters, including Syliboy, filed a complaint with the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination over the racism they experienced during that time.
Syliboy said one of his boats was nearly rammed on the water while his other boat was set on fire at a wharf. His crew’s gear was also stolen or vandalized.
“It’s even kind of hard to talk about really,” Syliboy said. “It was a lot of stress, high stress everyday.”
“Constantly looking over your shoulder. You had to choose where you were going to eat,” he said. “It was a very hostile environment.”
A spokeswoman with the Nova Scotia RCMP said the police force is monitoring the current situation in southwestern Nova Scotia between Mi’kmaw and non-Indigenous lobster harvesters.
“Operational plan have been prepared, which will ensure a coordinated, appropriate and measured approach, if required,” Cpl. Lisa Croteau said in an email.
A spokeswoman for DFO Minister Bernadette Jordan said while the department wants “to work in partnership with First Nations to implement their Treaty Rights,” it is also monitoring fishing activity throughout the province and “will enforce the Fisheries Act for all harvesters.”
“Any fishing activity occurring outside of the Fisheries Act and associated regulations, without a licence or in contravention of a licence issued by the Department, is subject to enforcement action, no matter the harvester,” Jane Deeks said in an email.
Syliboy said he wished DFO and RCMP would do much more to make Mi’kmaw fishers like him feel safe on the water.
“Bernadette Jordan, the Fisheries Minister, she could release a statement honouring our treaties and have officers honour our treaties,” Syliboy said.
Syliboy said regardless of what happened last year, he is still preparing for lobster fishing in St. Mary’s Bay soon. He replaced some of the traps he lost last year and collected enough rope to string together.
“I’m going to make do with what I got. I’m hoping to make a profit and pay my bills,” he said.