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Policing protest: A double standard

A van is seen on fire in New Edinburgh, N.S., in this still image taken from Facebook video on Oct. 13, 2020. (Riley Howe/Facebook)

This article was originally published on the Council of Canadians website, and is republished here with Robin Tress’ kind permission. Check out more of Robin’s writing here.

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – In the past week we’ve seen shocking acts of violence and vandalism in the St Mary’s Bay area of Nova Scotia as non-Indigenous fishers continue to oppose Mi’kmaq rightsholders exercising their treaty right to fish. Settlers trapped two Mi’kmaq fishermen in a lobster pound, broke the building’s windows, and burned a van outside, and poisoned the lobster catch with chemicals. Footage shows police officers standing around while this happened, seeming to do nothing about the acts taking place. Settler fishers have been following Mi’kmaq fishing boats and cutting the lines off active lobster traps. A settler man physically attacked Sipekne’katik Chief Mike Sack, and is so far one of the few people who has been arrested in association with the acts of violence and vandalism. 

On Friday night a lobster pound in Middle West Pubnico, NS, was burnt to the ground and one person was sent to hospital with life-threatening injuries. RCMP are calling this “suspicious.” 

See also: Letter: RCMP’s failure to stop hate crimes in fishery dispute is another strike against them

This conflict centres around the Mi’kmaq treaty right to fish, and the Supreme Court Decisions in 1999 that affirmed that Mi’kmaq have a right to fish for a “moderate livelihood”. This is a complex conflict that has ebbed and flowed for decades, and in the last month has escalated to a dangerous degree and is likely to continue heating up if multiple players in the federal government continue to abdicate their responsibilities. 

As we’ve said before, there are a lot of moving pieces to this conflict, so this post is an attempt to give background on the relationship between police and Indigenous rights.  

RCMP inaction emboldens those committing violence 

Despite the clear acts of violence, intimidation, and vandalism committed by non-Indigenous fishers – many of which are caught on camera in broad daylight – very few arrests have been made. As Pam Palmater said in her recent video on the topic, RCMP inaction emboldens settler fishers and gives a “sense of impunity which only serves to put Mi’kmaq peoples at greater risk.” 

The difference between this response and the RCMP’s response to almost any Indigenous-led action to defend treaty rights and lands is truly staggering. On October 17th – one month after Sipekne’katik and other First Nations issued a state of emergency, and after several people were assaulted and significant property damage was done – Public Safety Minister Bill Blair approved more RCMP units to be sent to St Mary’s Bay

However, the RCMP typically have no trouble arresting Indigenous land defenders who peacefully protect their rights and their lands. Indigenous land defenders were brutally arrested earlier this year when Wet’suwet’en peoples were defending their sovereign lands from unlawful development of the Coastal GasLink pipeline, in 2019 when Mi’kmaq grandmothers were arrested defending their lands from the Alton Gas project, and just this weekend land defenders from the Secwépemc Unity Camp were arrested for protesting the TransMountain pipeline, to name a few examples. 

Double standard in policing 

Looking closely at the history of policing of Indigenous movements, and now the policing of the settler fishers enacting violence, intimidation, and vandalism, one thing becomes clear: When Indigenous people protest, they are considered enemies of the state. When settlers protest, they are treated as sensitive stakeholders critical to the resolution of the conflict. 

We have written about the criminalization of Indigenous land and water defenders many times. Last year we wrote about CSIS and the RCMP swapping information with fossil fuel company Enbridge about organizations and individuals that were under surveillance because they were protesting pipelines. We wrote: “CSIS is meant only to track and store data on relevant threats to public security. This begs the question of whose version of public security is behind these motives.” The decision to surveille land defenders necessarily comes with the police deciding that those people are threats to public security. 

Unfortunately, this kind of surveillance of Indigenous land and water protectors and their allies is not new – in 2013 the RCMP heavily monitored numerous anti-fracking organizers in New Brunswick/Mi’kma’ki. Activists have long asked to see the Civilian Complaints Report completed in 2019 associated with this surveillance, but have yet to receive that report.   

Around the same time last year, the Alberta government passed the “Critical Infrastructure Defense Act,” which criminalized people protesting pipelines and other fossil fuel infrastructure and levies fines as high as $10,000 a day and up to six months jail time against protestors.  

The point that these examples demonstrate is that when Indigenous peoples disrupt the status quo – without enacting violence, intimidation, or vandalism – in order to defend their rights (which are written into treaties, the Canadian Constitution, and numerous Supreme Court of Canada decisions) they are often treated like public enemies, criminalized to an extreme degree, and punished in the judicial system. 

We are not seeing any of that criminalization or punishment happening to settler people who are engaging in clear acts of violence, intimidation, and vandalism right now in Nova Scotia. Settler people carrying out these acts are not being infiltrated by the RCMP, surveilled by the police, harassed, or threatened at gun point, as Indigenous land defenders have been on countless occasions in Canadian history.  

Why is the RCMP letting this happen?  

There are two key systems at play that lead this kind of difference in policing: 

  1.  Racial identity or racialization matters when it comes to how people experience policing. This case shows us that protesting while white, people get away with a lot before the police will intervene. This can make it feel to those of us who are white that police are friendly and fair. Protesting while Indigenous or with another racialized identity, however, is likely to leave you at risk of massive fines, being brutally arrested by police, or at gunpoint. 
  2. As we wrote about recently, the conflict in St Mary’s Bay is a clash between a colonial state and an Indigenous nation. In this case, the Mi’kmaq Nation is working to assert its rights on its unceded, though occupied, territories. The Canadian Government and its precursors have demonstrated their interest in controlling and extracting natural resources. Canada consistently tries to maintain control over these resources – often through its police and military forces – so it can have some control over how power and wealth are distributed. Read more of this analysis here.  

How can the conflict be de-escalated? 

The Nova Scotia RCMP have said they don’t see this escalation as a “police issue” and that there isn’t enough RCMP capacity to both “preserve life” and hold people accountable to the law – watch the full interview here. Many Mi’kmaq people, including Sipekne’katik Chief Mike Sack are calling for a greater RCMP presence and even the armed force to be called in to protect Mi’kmaq fishers as they exercise their rights. However, this call is not uniformly supported by Mi’kmaq. Because the RCMP has been a vehicle of violence against Indigenous peoples since its inception, many are skeptical that great police presence would benefit Mi’kmaq rightsholders.   

History and women and gender studies professor at the University of Manitoba Jocelyn Thorpe told Global News last year, the original purpose of the RCMP was “to assert sovereignty over Indigenous people and their lands.” Inuk land defender Amy Norman tweeted: “Seeing lots of calls for the RCMP to do their job in Mi’kma’ki. They are. They were literally created for this. Of course they’re going to stand by and watch as settlers enact violence for days upon days. That’s their passive way of keeping us in our place.” 

Given that the RCMP have said themselves that they don’t have the capacity to keep their own staff safe while de-escalating the situation, and that the RCMP have historically been a perpetrator of violence on Indigenous peoples, it’s not clear what the best path to de-escalation is at this point. It is clear, however, that Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples across the country are watching the situation closely and operating in solidarity with Mi’kmaq rightsholders, as demonstrated by solidarity events over the weekend and the outpouring of financial and physical support for Mi’kmaq fishers.  

To learn more

To stay informed about what is going in St Mary’s Bay, also known as the Kespukwitk district of Mi’kma’ki, we suggest following Kukukwes.ca, APTN, and the NS Advocate in addition to your regular news sources.

  • Ku’ku’kwes News – Independent Indigenous News kukukwes.com/  @mgoogoo
    • *Note: Ku’ku’kwes News is subscriber-funded. Please consider subscribing so they can continue reporting on this vital issue!
  • Nova Scotia Advocate provides a voice for the many Nova Scotians who too often are ignored. nsadvocate.org @RobertDevet
  • Aboriginal People’s Television Network – https://www.aptnnews.ca/ @APTNNews


1752FrontLine@gmail.com to donate to frontline supporters 

monicah@sipeknekatik.ca to donate to the fisherman – legal fees, trap and gear replacement 

See also: Trapped in conflict: How the corporate mega-fishery Clearwater has set the stage for violent conflict in Mi’kma’ki

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