The ongoing tensions surrounding the First Nations lobster harvest in southwest Nova Scotia erupted Tuesday night when several hundred commercial fishermen and their supporters raided two facilities where Mi’kmaw fishermen were storing their catches.
Indigenous leaders are condemning the actions as racist hate crimes and calling for the RCMP to step up their response.
Commercial fishermen began gathering Tuesday afternoon in Digby County and made their way to a lobster pound in New Edinburgh, where, by nightfall, a van was set ablaze, lobsters were stolen and the facility was damaged.
A similar raid also took place in Middle West Pubnico, in the neighbouring county of Yarmouth, where Mi’kmaw fisherman Jason Marr was forced to barricade himself inside a lobster pound while outside a mob vandalized his vehicle and called for him to relinquish the lobster he had harvested from the waters of St. Marys Bay.
WATCH | Fishing dispute heats up in N.S.:
By morning, hundreds of dead lobster were strewn across the pavement outside the pound, and confrontations continued on the ground throughout the day.
The two raids come after weeks of unrest in the province’s southwest, sparked by the launch of a “moderate livelihood” lobster fishery by the Sipekne’katik band outside the federally mandated commercial season.
Just last week, a Mi’kmaw fishing vessel was destroyed in a suspicious fire at a wharf in the community of Comeauville.
Marr said he had just returned from lobster fishing with his two daughters on Tuesday evening when he heard that a group of commercial fishermen were threatening to burn his boat and destroy his lobster.
“So I decided that it wasn’t a good idea to keep them there, and I loaded up my van and called a friend of mine and he told me he had somewhere I could store them for a while,” Marr told CBC’s Information Morning on Wednesday.
Marr said he believes he was followed to the Yarmouth County lobster pound, where he took his catch, and the facility was soon surrounded by hundreds of people.
“They said they were coming in to take the lobster,” Marr said. “They told us they were going to come in at midnight and burn us out, screaming a lot of different profanities at us.”
Footage shared online
Marr captured about an hour of video footage of his time barricaded inside. At one point, he briefly steps out an entrance that appears to be guarded by several RCMP officers, who tell him to go back inside.
Several other videos were shared on social media overnight, including one of a white van burning in New Edinburgh and being extinguished by an RCMP officer.
Marr said his vehicle was also destroyed.
“They slashed the tires. I watched one guy pee in the driver’s seat of my truck. Another guy poured a jug of some antifreeze or something down inside my gas tank. Another guy poured a jug of something down the vents in the heaters of my truck.”
Marr said that eventually, the RCMP took him by the arm and forced him to leave the building, and he stood outside and watched as the mob broke windows and carried out lobster in crates.
“They totally annihilated that building, just tore it all apart. They took all the lobster,” he said.
Video shared Wednesday morning shows piles of banded lobster scattered on the ground outside the lobster pound.
Social media posts being circulated by people defending the raid said egg-bearing female lobsters, which are not supposed to be harvested, and dozens of crates of frozen dead lobster were removed because they demonstrate poor fishing practices on the part of the Mi’kmaw fishermen.
But Sipekne’katik Chief Mike Sack said those lobsters are not his band’s property and that the facilities that were raided buy and store from commercial fishermen and Mi’kmaw fishermen alike.
“That product is not ours at all. And all along the way [the commercial fishermen] have been trying to plant on our people, make it look like we’re the ones that are hurting the species,” Sack told reporters on Wednesday.
Brendon Coulstring, who works at the facility in Middle West Pubnico, said he was the one who let Carr into the lobster pound Tuesday night and was there to witness the ensuing clash.
He echoed Sack, saying the dead lobster did not actually belong to the Mi’kmaw fishermen. He said it’s common practice for workers at the plant to freeze lobster from the commercial fishery that are found to be weak or dead and sell them for fertilizer or other uses that don’t involve human consumption.
“All the lobsters in there right now are commercial fishermen’s dead lobsters from the season that they’re trying to blame on the Natives and saying that the Natives put them in there and they didn’t,” Coulstring said.
He said he has tried to stay neutral in the ongoing dispute over the lobster fishery, but after Tuesday night, he said he “can’t ever go on the fishermen side whatsoever.”
“The way that they acted, that was not a peaceful protest. That was an angry mob trying to burn our building down and trying to ruin it. They ruined our building. They cut the power in the building so that the lobsters in the tank wouldn’t get air and they didn’t get air for about two hours.”
RCMP response under scrutiny
Coulstring and Marr were critical of the RCMP response on Tuesday night. Coulstring said officers didn’t respond for two hours after being called, and Marr said that as the mob threw rocks through windows and removed crates of lobster, “not one RCMP even tried to stop them.”
Sack also said the RCMP response was insufficient, and he’s waiting for charges to be laid against the instigators of the raids.
The police “are not doing their job well at all at the moment,” Sack said.
RCMP spokesperson Sgt. Andrew Joyce said no arrests had been made as of Wednesday afternoon but that officers did witness criminal activity and investigative teams were being assembled.
Responding to the criticism levelled against the RCMP response on Tuesday, Joyce said he did not think it was fair to say that officers did nothing.
“We were there to keep the peace and keep everyone involved as safe as possible in the situation,” he told CBC News in an interview.
“We live in a country that is so great people can criticize the police for their actions or what they see as their inactions.”
Joyce said officers counted about 200 people at each lobster pound, and while he did not know the identities of everyone involved, he suspected there were some people who participated at both locations.
There were also civil, thoughtful conversations between both sides on Wednesday, such as when Chief Mike Sack spoke with a non-Indigenous fisherman in a video posted online.
Joel Comeau, the non-Indigenous fisherman in the video, suggested both sides work together to come up with a better framework, which they would then take to the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans for approval.
National leaders respond
Perry Bellegarde, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said in a statement that it’s time for the RCMP, as well as federal and provincial governments, to intervene in Nova Scotia’s fishery dispute “before someone gets badly injured or, possibly, killed.”
“This has never been a commercial disagreement, and the actions of the non-Indigenous fishers are meant to harass and intimidate the First Nations with whom they share the waters and the resources within them.”
Bellegarde referred to the 21-year-old Supreme Court of Canada ruling known as the Marshall decision, which affirmed the Mi’kmaw right to operate a moderate livelihood fishery.
The court later said the federal government could regulate the Mi’kmaw fishery but must justify any restrictions it placed on it. No such restrictions have been defined in the intervening years, and Mi’kmaw fishermen in Nova Scotia continue to call for the federal government to define and protect their treaty right.
Meanwhile, commercial fishermen take issue with the Mi’kmaw fishery because it operates outside their fishing season, which doesn’t start until November. They claim harvesting earlier than that is a threat to the fishery’s sustainability.
Colin Sproul, president of the Bay of Fundy Inshore Fishermen’s Association, said commercial fishermen’s concerns about conservation are not being recognized and that what’s been happening in southwest Nova Scotia this week is the result of that lack of recognition — as well as the federal government’s failure to define a moderate livelihood fishery in the years since the Marshall decision.
Still, he said he did not condone the actions taken Tuesday night. He said it was not organized by any of the fishing associations in the area.
His message for commercial fishermen in the area was, “This is not the way.”
“I want to encourage you to go back to Meteghan wharf or to go home,” he told CBC’s Mainstreet, referring to the wharf where commercial fishermen have been consolidating their fleet to avoid clashes with Mi’kmaw fishermen.
“Please go home before someone gets hurt or somebody’s life gets ruined,” Sproul said.
Federal Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan said in a statement that she was “appalled by the reported events” and that she condemned the destruction of property, violence and threats.
“There is no place for this kind of violence or intimidation,” Jordan said.
“Our government is seized with the issue, and we will continue to work with both First Nations and industry leadership to find a path forward. Our conversations to date have been positive, and we must ensure they continue that way.”
But, she said, “progress cannot be made if individuals resort to violence.”
Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil has repeatedly said it’s up to Ottawa to settle the lobster fishing dispute, and he did so again on Wednesday when answering questions from reporters after a COVID-19 briefing.
“I recognize the anxiety that each of you may be feeling, when it comes to the way that you create a livelihood for you and your families — all the more reason why DFO needs to have a meeting with both sides.”