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Unfinished business: the role of colonialism and racism in Nova Scotia’s fishing tensions

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – Tensions between Mi’kmaq and commercial lobster fishermen in Southern Nova Scotia are turning ugly. Two boats have suspiciously caught fire, commercial fishers have gathered in large numbers to show their displeasure with their Mi’kmaq counterparts, and at least one person has been arrested for threatening Mi’kmaq fishers over social media,

September’s protest at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans office in Digby. Photo Paul Palmeter/CBC

These tensions between Indigenous and non-Indigenous fishers in Nova Scotia are being presented as stemming from unfinished business, in particular the Supreme Court of Canada’s Donald Marshall Jr ruling in September 1999. That decision confirmed that Indigenous peoples in Atlantic Canada are legally entitled through 1760-1 treaty rights to fish out of designated seasons.

True, the ruling left open many questions that federal authorities have yet to sufficiently address.

The unfinished business, however, goes well beyond Supreme Court rulings and legislation governing fishing. Colonialism and racism are a major part of the unfinished business fueling tensions in Southern Nova Scotia and must become part of that conversation.

Early settler proclamations, such as Nova Scotia’s 1756 proclamation offering a bounty for Mi’kmaq scalps, were overtly violent. When Indigenous peoples fell under federal jurisdiction with the introduction of the constitution and the development of the Indian Act, policies, through the veil of assimilation, became covertly violent.

Families were torn apart by residential schools while the land and water previously used to secure sustenance were privatized. These factors, alongside countless other ways in which the Indigenous population was criminalized and punished for simply existing, have resulted in multi-generational trauma and persistent gaps in socio-economic positioning between Indigenous individuals and the rest of Canada.

Indigenous communities were self-sufficient before the British and French settlers arrived. Overt violence and assimilationist policies undermined this self-sufficiency by design.

In the words of Duncan Campbell Scott, Deputy of Indian Affairs in 1920, nevertheless, “the country ought [not] to continuously protect a class of people who are unable to stand alone. Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question, and no Indian department.”

Such rhetoric served to power popular opinions that would allow assimilationist/genocidal policies to go unchallenged. It served to normalize injustices being committed against Indigenous peoples.

This successful normalization process has led to everyday racism—actions and beliefs motivated by subconscious, normalized thoughts that undermine and undervalue a population on the basis of race.  

In Canada, Indigenous people are disproportionately represented amongst Canada’s poor. Bringing the issue closer to home: Residents of reserves in southern Nova Scotia are experiencing deep poverty.

Political promises to improve Indigenous living conditions are made with relative frequency. These promises, nonetheless, are often underwhelming once (and if) they become a reality. Everyday racism can be used to explain why Indigenous issues do not top the policy agendas of federal politicians: it is normal for Indigenous individuals to be under-served.

Despite being disproportionately impoverished and under-served by the federal government, it is a relatively normal occurrence in Digby County to hear white individuals speak of Mi’kmaq individuals  as lazy trouble-makers who are awarded greater financial assistance and benefits than they deserve. The current tensions exist because the Mi’kmaq  population is regarded as being undeserving of their special fishing rights.

Following the Donald Marshall Jr ruling granting Indigenous fishing rights in 1999, the anger of non-Indigenous fishers fueled extreme violence—occurring most memorably in Burnt Church, New Brunswick.

In this community Indigenous fishing gear was destroyed. Indigenous fishers were also hospitalized as a result of personal attacks. Authorities did not de-escalate the situation. Rather, officials wearing riot gear aboard a government boat were responsible for the sinking of two Indigenous owned boats carrying Indigenous fishing crews.

Once again we see boats catching  fire in suspicious ways, protests and racist social media threats, and the Department of Fisheries increasing inspections, patrols, and surveillance efforts.  

The potential for escalation of tensions to more intense forms of violence is especially great given how many non-Indigenous fishers in this area also experience degrees of economic uncertainty. If the catch this season is not as good as the previous year, Mi’kmaq fishers are quick to be blamed.

Now is the time to de-escalate the situation in Southern Nova Scotia.

There must be an open, informed, and civil dialogue, with both Mi’kmaq  and non-Indigenous groups at the table, that can lead the way toward both substantial policy change and substantial attitude change.

Bruce Wildsmith, legal adviser to the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq Chiefs, is advocating for the development of “moderate livelihood licenses” for Aboriginal fishers. This has the potential to be a positive policy change in the fishing sector.

Change, however, must expand beyond the fishing sector; the achievement of a moderate livelihood for all Indigenous individuals rather than just those involved in the fishing industry (who tend to be disproportionately male) must be the goal.

The gaps in social and economic conditions that would allow for Indigenous individuals to catch up to broader Canadian standards are far from being closed. Just as public policy created these gaps, public policy is needed to close these gaps.

Achieving any positive changes in this regard requires a change in attitude to ensure that new policies do not give non-Indigenous individuals new reasons to resent Aboriginal  peoples. A good start to this process would be to secure a broad willingness to have difficult conversations about the root-causes (or unfinished business) of current tensions. Conversations can begin to challenge negative conceptions of Indigenous peoples, allowing positive policy changes to flow more easily.

Such positive change has no chance of  happening if conversations on current tensions remain disconnected from their root causes of colonialism and racism.

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