Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller says the RCMP “let down” Indigenous peoples facing violence amid an intensifying dispute between commercial fishers and Mi’kmaw fishers in southwest Nova Scotia.
“The acts of violence we have seen in the past days and weeks are disgusting, unacceptable, and racist in nature,” Miller said at a press conference in Ottawa Monday with Public Safety Minister Bill Blair, Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan, and Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett.
“It is a disgrace to see these threats and acts of intimidation and violence take place in this country. We must also recognize that once again, as evidenced by the scenes of violence, Indigenous people have been let down by the police, those who are sworn to protect them.”
Indigenous peoples have suffered “continuous discrimination” from the consequences of colonial practices, Miller said, but have shown “extreme resilience” and courage by standing up for their rights.
“In order to move forward, we need to have a proper peaceful situation and the protection of people on both sides has to prevail. And clearly that has not been the case up to now.”
Miller was referencing incidents of violence that erupted last week, including a fire that destroyed a lobster pound Saturday in Middle West Pubnico, N.S.. The blaze, which the RCMP deemed suspicious, happened days after clashes involving hundreds of people outside other facilities that store Indigenous-caught lobster. In one incident, a van owned by an Indigenous fisher was torched.
Over the weekend, a man was charged with assaulting Chief Mike Sack of Sipekne’katik First Nation.
For weeks, non-Indigeous commercial fishers have protested a fishery launched by the Sipekne’katik First Nation last month that has operated outside the federally regulated lobster season. A 1999 Supreme Court ruling, known as the Marshall decision, affirmed the Mi’kmaq treaty rights to fish for a “moderate livelihood.”
Though the top court also said the treaty rights would be subject to federal regulations, successive governments over the last two decades have not provided a clear definition of what constitutes a “moderate” living. Over the weekend, N.S. Premier Stephen McNeil called on the federal government to answer the question once and for all.
The Nova Scotia RCMP has faced criticism for not protecting Mi’kmaw fishers and failing to defuse tensions that have been growing for weeks. NDP MP Charlie Angus told reporters Monday the RCMP “has done little to protect the rights of Indigenous people who are practising their treaty rights.” He called on the Liberal government to send a “clear message” to Mounties that they must do so.
But when asked if he agreed with Miller’s assertion the police have failed the Mi’kmaq, Blair, the minister responsible for the RCMP and a former Toronto police chief, wouldn’t say.
“What I can say absolutely is that the police have a responsibility to protect all Canadians and certainly to acknowledge, recognize and uphold Indigenous rights,” Blair said. “I think it’s important to acknowledge there is a need for significant reform in respect to how police perform their services in Indigenous communities.”
The federal government is working on a legislative framework to ensure police are “responsive and respectful” of Indigenous communities and their rights, he said. “I do acknowledge that there are concerns within Indigenous communities. We’ve heard those concerns and we’re working hard to resolve them.”
Still, Blair said he believed the “vast majority of officers do their very best to serve those communities with professionalism, with integrity and with respect.”
The public safety minister said additional RCMP officers have been deployed to the area at the request of the provincial government, with the N.S. RCMP now able to draw resources from other provinces in the so-called Atlantic bubble.
Blair said RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki is confident she has the resources needed to keep the peace on the ground and uphold the law.
But the public safety minister dismissed Sack’s call for the military to be deployed to keep commercial fishers from taking the law into their own hands.
The Sipekne’katik First Nation chief told The Canadian Press the fire over the weekend was retaliation from commercial fishers. “They’re doing whatever they want and getting away with it,” he said. “We need the military to come step in to keep the peace.”
Blair told reporters the matter at hand isn’t a “military operation,” but a peacekeeping one.
“It is the responsibility of the police of jurisdiction, and in this case the responsibility of the RCMP. We have taken steps necessary to ensure they have adequate resources to do the job,” he said.
The public safety minister pledged that those who turn to violence or vandalism will be held to account. He said a suspect has been charged with arson over the van that was torched outside a lobster facility last week, and police have identified a person of interest in Saturday’s blaze, who was sent to hospital with serious injuries.’’
Jordan, the fisheries minister, also reiterated to reporters Monday the Mi’kmaq have a constitutionally affirmed treaty right that is not up for debate.
“We’re here because our country operated for centuries without considering First Nations’ rights. We built up whole systems, institutions and structures without considering them,” she said. “And right now we have a chance to change that for the benefit of every single one of us.”
She attempted to put aside concerns raised by some commercial fishermen about the sustainability and conservation of the lobsters they depend on for their livelihoods.
“Conservation underpins everything we do. Lobster stocks are healthy, (the Department of Fisheries and Oceans) will continue to monitor stocks and we’ll never move forward with a plan that threatens the health of this species,” she said.
Sack told CBC News his band has “550 traps in our water.”
Miller said Monday that the Indigenous fisheries industry is an “infinitely small portion” of commercial fisheries.“The picture or portrait that’s being painted is one of Indigenous fishers taking all the lobsters,” he said. “That is absolutely not the case.”
The four Liberal ministers have joined an NDP request for House of Commons Speaker Anthony Rota to grant an emergency debate on the escalating issue.
With files from The Canadian Press