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DFO is taking Mi'kmaq lobster traps in Unama'ki (Cape Breton)

DFO is taking Mi’kmaq fishers’ traps in St Peter’s Bay, Unama’ki (Cape Breton, NS)

In mid-October, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) seized around 200 lobster traps from Mi’kmaq fishers in Unama’ki (Cape Breton, Nova Scotia). Before taking the traps, DFO sent a letter to Potlotek First Nation saying the department would seize all gear that didn’t have DFO issued tags. 

This is a direct contradiction with DFO Minister Bernadette Jordan’s claim to support Mi’kmaq fishers and their right to earn a livelihood. Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident: DFO has been seizing Mi’kmaq lobster traps for years. 

“They’re stealing food off our plates” 

People who had their traps taken by DFO  held a rally outside the Richmond County DFO office, and the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq Chiefs have demanded that DFO return the traps.  

Mi’kmaq fisher Craig Doucette said in a video posted on social media: “They’re stealing food off our plates and taking the blankets off our kids at night.” He pointed the camera to his boat, showing that he fishes with 20 traps on a 17-foot boat and that claims that this kind of fishery could harm lobster stocks are unfounded. He talked about DFO’s failure to support Mi’kmaq fishing rights: “One end of the province DFO is standing there watching people take our gear, and on this end of the province they’re taking our gear,” said Doucette. 

I spoke with Bernadette Marshall, a treaty rightsholder from Potlotek First Nation, while she was sitting on the St Peter’s Bay wharf. She said that her community is fully behind their fishers and are helping them find and buy traps and bait so they can get out on the water and assert their rights.  

“It’s a struggle for them. They’re not making a lot of money, but it’s not about the money,” she said. “It’s about the treaty right, and we’ve waited long enough.” She told me that it’s hard to find replacement traps for the ones that get stolen or cut, and it is hard to find someone who is willing to sell bait to Mi’kmaq fishers.  

DFO has said nothing about when they’ll return the traps to their owners, and won’t comment on this story because they say this matter is “ongoing.”  

DFO’s actions don’t match their words 

Potlotek and Eskazoni First Nations have issued their own livelihood fishing tags, just like Sipekne’katik First Nation has done for its community members who are fishing in Southwestern Nova Scotia.

For DFO to claim that people fishing with Mi’kmaq livelihood tags are doing something wrong or illegal is a direct contradiction to what Fisheries Minister Jordan is saying publicly. 

On October 19, Minister Jordan said the following: “The Mi’kmaq have the right to fish – a Supreme Court affirmed treaty right. We’re not here because we’re debating that right. 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. And right now, we have a chance to change that, for the benefit of every single one of us… This is about First Nations earning a livelihood on the water, the way their people have for thousands of years, and the way so many fish harvesters have for generations.” 

While what she says is true – the rights are not up for debate, we got to this place by ignoring those treaties for centuries and we must now enable a Mi’kmaq livelihood fishery – this statement is totally out of line with the actions of DFO in Unama’ki. If Minister Jordan and her colleagues really believed this statement, would they be seizing traps from Potlotek fishers?  

As APTN journalist Trina Roach pointed out last week, the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans is saying nice things about recognizing treaty rights, but at the same time DFO enforcement officers are behaving as if the livelihood fishery is illegal and are pulling Mi’kmaq lobster traps out of the water in St. Peter’s Bay.  

Long history of broken promises 

Not only is DFO seizing Mi’kmaq fishers’ traps a failure to live up to a Supreme Court decision from 1999, it is also a failure to abide by treaties signed more than 250 years ago.  

The Peace and Friendship Treaty signed in 1752 lays out an agreement to share the land. It describes a relationship of non-interference: 

“It is agreed that the said Tribe of Indians shall not be hindered from, but have free liberty of Hunting & Fishing as usual: and that if they shall think a Truckhouse needful at the River Chibenaccadie or any other place of their resort, they shall have the same built and proper Merchandize lodged therein, to be Exchanged for what the Indians shall have to dispose of, and that in the mean time the said Indians shall have free liberty to bring for Sale to Halifax or any other Settlement within this Province, Skins, feathers, fowl, fish or any other thing they shall have to sell, where they shall have liberty to dispose thereof to the best Advantage.” 

This treaty-protected right to hunt, fish, and trade “as usual” and the “free liberty” sell to the “best advantage” has not been respected by the Canadian Government, and is being specifically disregarded by the act of DFO seizing Mi’kmaq lobster traps. 

As we wrote a few weeks ago, the conflict over Mi’kmaq fishing rights is an archetypal 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. Meanwhile, the Canadian government and its precursors have demonstrated their interest in controlling and extracting natural resources, including lobster. Right now, DFO is trying to control access to resources – lobster – by seizing Mi’kmaq fishers’ traps from St Peter’s Bay, taking some of the tools needed to benefit from the bounty of the Mi’kmaq territory.  

The chosen economic strategy of the Canadian government is neoliberalism – using state power as a tool to extract resources and create private wealth. With a livelihood fishery, the idea isn’t to get rich at the expense of the planet and the people – the idea is to use natural resources responsibly to allow people to live a decent life. This is the Mi’kmaq principle of Netukulimk: to “use the natural bounty provided by the Creator” sufficient to ensure “the self-support of the individual and the community.” Read more about Netukulimk. 

This is a very different concept from the economic ideal of amassing and centralizing wealth, which DFO has supported corporations like Clearwater Lobster in doing. In fact, the desire to amass and centralize wealth was a key driver behind the original and continuing dispossession of Indigenous Peoples in what is currently called Canada. Moving Indigenous Peoples onto reserves served to remove them from the full breadth of their traditional lands, leaving the lands open to settlement and extraction.  

In modern times, we see Indigenous Peoples criminalized for defending the territories they have inherent and (in this case) treaty obligations to protect. We see people, often women, arrested and thrown in jail for blocking pipelines and other extractive projects on their unceded territories (ex: Alton GasCoastal GasLink Pipeline1492 Landback Lane). In order for Canada to extract natural resources for the purpose of creating and maintaining wealth, the state continues to separate Indigenous Peoples from their lands and rights.  

In the specific case of Mi’kmaq Nation and the Peace and Friendship Treaties, DFO’s attempt to maintain control over the fishery by seizing Mi’kmaq fishers’ traps is a direct violation of the treaty: it hinders Mi’kmaq people from fishing and having the liberty to sell their catch.