Being an Indigenous person living in Canada can be a very frustrating experience at times. It can be hard enough when you have to deal with the history of this country, how it affects you and your family, the general lack of knowledge of what Canada’s history is when it comes to Indigenous peoples and how that lack of knowledge feeds prejudices against First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples from across this land. Frankly, some days it’s downright exhausting and in the age of social media, there are days when I just have to unplug and get away from it all, if only for my own sanity.
But then there are times when stories come out that are just so maddening, so awful and so bloody triggering that you just can’t ignore them. One such story is playing out right now in Nova Scotia, one that is as maddening as it is revealing of so many things about the state of reconciliation in Canada today:
Everyone, there are so many things that are upsetting about this story that it’s almost hard to name them all. This is a prime example of a situation that has been left to fester, a complete lack of knowledge of (or willful ignoring of) the history and legal facts in this case and how it all feeds into the prejudices of some with ugly effects. As has been reported in media, we’re seeing non-Indigenous fishers in Nova Scotia threatening and apparently committing acts of vandalism against Mi’kmaq fishers. That has led to images like the following below:
All of that has led the Nova Scotia Assembly of Mi’kmaw Chiefs declared a State of Emergency in response to what they have called “political unrest” and “violence” over the assertion of treaty rights. And if you think that’s an exaggeration, that video above is a sure sign that it’s not. And that has led to a response from the Yarmouth and Area Chamber of Commerce, which I openly admit is what triggered me to write this piece:
Folks, this is exactly what is so bloody wrong in this moment. Statements like that, which are factually wrong and inciting an increase of the tension in the area, are sadly the kind of crap we see in moments like these. And let’s be clear, that statement starts off with ignorant and legally wrong statements that are designed to do no good. The statement reference to “protest action” as a result of “alleged, illegal fishing in the area” is especially inflammatory as it is factually wrong and sets the tone for how this whole situation is unfolding. Let’s be clear here, the actions taken by the Mi’kmaw to start a “moderate livelihood” fishery are not illegal. The Mi’kmaw went through the courts to have their treaty rights recognized by the Government of Canada and in the Marshall Decision, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the Mi’kmaw were right. When the Supreme Court upholds your rights, actions stemming from that are the very definition of legal as Hell.
Oh and when did the Marshall decision come down from the Supreme Court? September 17, 1999. 1999 people. 21 freaking years ago. That’s how long ago that these matters were settled by the courts and the highest court in the land made it clear that the Mi’kmaw had the legal right to earn a “moderate livelihood” through fishing, so how in the Hell is this still at question? Well, that’s because in the 21 years since the Government of Canada under the Liberal and Conservative governments of Jean Chrétien, Paul Martin, Stephen Harper and Justin Trudeau haven’t done the bloody work to act on the ruling of the Supreme Court. What has the hold up been? Well the Government of Canada keeps litigating the concept of what a “moderate livelihood” is. Seriously, they are continuing to fight over what in the Hell that definition means. They’ve blown 21 years of dithering and fighting over that, meaning that Fisheries haven’t acted on the Supreme Court’s ruling.
So with that completely lack of action in mind, the Mi’kmaw moved ahead with their own fishery for lobster. They have permitted an amount of lobster traps that amount to a grand total of 1% of the current fishery. Yes folks, access to 1% of this fishery is what has sent these Non-Indigenous fishers to the ramparts, making threatening gestures on the waters, apparently vandalizing the property of Mi’kmaw fishers. That is what the Yarmouth Chamber of Commerce is calling “protest” and they say warrants more RCMP officers to be called in, not to protect the Mi’kmaw from the violence their facing but to stop them from enacting their constitutionally protected rights. And to be fair, when we see video of an RCMP officer saying things like “Whether we like it or not”, that doesn’t exactly leave the feeling like the RCMP are there to protect their rights.
All of this crap is as disturbing as it is typical. Seriously, what other group of people in this country would accept waiting 21 years for a Supreme Court ruling in their favour being enacted? Better yet, which other group in this country would accept having to constantly go to court to have their basic rights re-affirmed over and over again, basically having to go to court to simply use their rights? No one else would, yet time and time again this is what Indigenous peoples have to continue to do over the simplest of things. My people, the Métis, had to spend 17 years in court just to get it formally recognized the federal government is responsible for all Indigenous peoples, including the Métis. Because the Feds and provinces spent decades acting like little shits treating the Métis like a game of political ping pong, saying that the other was legally responsible for us and our rights, we actually had to fight in the courts for 17 years to answer the simple question who was responsible for dealing with us. That didn’t even start to touch the idea of rights and such, only touching who had the responsibility to talk with us. So yeah, I’m empathetic to the Mi’kmaw when they have to wait 21 years to get governments to actually enact a Supreme Court ruling.
And honestly, I would hope that if were truly in a position to have true reconciliation in this country that those non-Indigenous fishers would be supportive of their Mi’kmaw neighbours. Instead they are fighting this and threatening them, ignoring the rulings of the courts as if they aren’t law, their own law by the way. We Indigenous peoples keep getting told by those who oppose Indigenous rights that we need to do things “the right way”, that we shouldn’t protest and all that stuff. Yet what exactly did the Mi’kmaw do wrong here? They did this the right way, went through the courts, when through the Canadian justice system and when they won, they waited patiently. Much more patiently than most Canadians would ever be having a Supreme Court ruling in hand. And yet with all of that, still they are being attacked with all the ignorance and vitriol that’s always thrown at Indigenous peoples when we assert our rights.
So yeah, this is a completely clusterfuck that is completely of the Federal governments making. Instead of actually getting this sorted away and dealt with, they left it to fester. Instead of looking to make a system that would work for all, Federal governments of different stripes decided to spend over a decade fighting definitions, trying to find a weasel way out instead of actually dealing with the courts decision. This entire story is the entire Indigenous experience wrapped up into one, crappy package. If you want it all in a nutshell, this is it.
When you see stories like these playing out, it sends a message to Indigenous peoples across the country. It sends the message that no matter what you do, no matter how many court decisions you have in your favour, no matter how legal your actions are, they are going to be treated as the opposite and fought like Hell. Stories like these send the message that there is nothing that Indigenous people can do to do this right, which naturally leads to the question about why bothering. As someone who has personally worked to try to show that Canada’s political and legal systems can be a path to providing true reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians, this is especially disheartening. I can’t look at what’s happening in Nova Scotia and say that I’m feeling any positive vibes about this. We’re seeing a complete failure of Canada’s legal and political system play out in real time. If the rulings of Canada’s Supreme Court have no meaning to them, then what does that say about the state of Canada’s legal system? If politicians can simply ignore those same rulings, effectively acting as if they never happened with no consequences, what does that same about the state of our politics. Non-Indigenous Canadians would never stand for that or accept it, yet those non-Indigenous protestors in Nova Scotia are using force and threats to demand that the Mi’kmaw do. That is Canada in a nutshell, and it’s all kinds of depressing. It’s a difficult situation that requires diplomacy, legal skill and hard work, something with no Canadian government has been willing to even attempt to show for the past 21 years. At this point, I just pray that no one is hurt. I would pray that the government actually does what it should here, but given the history here, that appears to be far too much to ask for.