By Adam Bond
Tensions between Indigenous and non-Indigenous fishers crossed a violent and deeply concerning threshold this week when non-Indigenous mobs lashed out against the Mi’kmaq.
Hundreds of non-Indigenous ruffians grouped together on Tuesday night to swarm Mi’kmaw fishers and destroy their property with the obvious political intent of stopping them from exercising their constitutionally protected rights.
To be clear, the actions of these gangs were intended to terrorize the Mi’kmaw people and deliberately flout the law.
The Supreme Court of Canada has consistently upheld the principle that Indigenous fishing rights are protected under section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982. The court has specifically recognized that the constitutionally guaranteed treaty rights of the Mi’kmaq to fish take the highest priority, after legitimate conservation measures, and include their right to gain a moderate livelihood through their fishing activities.
The Indigenous Peoples of Canada have suffered greatly through the long history of colonization. First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities, families and individuals continue to be among the most marginalized and impoverished peoples in the country. The impacts of colonization are particularly pronounced on Indigenous women, who continue to face disproportionate rates of poverty and food insecurity.
Exercising constitutionally protected treaty rights to fish and earn a moderate livelihood is an inspiring and crucially important component of the efforts by Indigenous Peoples in Canada to push back against the tide of poverty and hunger. Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians alike should be proud of the Mi’kmaw fishers, including Mi’kmaw women, who have stood up for their rights and helped their people take charge over their own self-determination.
Moreover, any actions to intimidate and attack them for exercising their rights and fighting against the crippling effects of poverty should be met with a resounding and immediate course of national outrage from every corner of the country. But the crickets, in this case, are deafening.
Although the move toward reconciliation has been difficult, advances have been made in recent times. The violent actions by these mobs against the Mi’kmaw fisheries threatens to set back the progress that has been made.
It may well be that some groups and individuals have legitimate concerns respecting Indigenous fishing practices, and it is possible that some of them do not properly understand Indigenous rights and treaty rights. These are concerns that can be assuaged through dialogue. And if that doesn’t satisfy, the disputes can be resolved through the courts.
But these mobs have chosen to skirt the ordinary channels open to Canadians who seek to resolve their differences. Their terrorizing and criminal actions were clearly motivated by racist hate and they constitute a brazen disregard for the rule of law, constitutional rights and reconciliation.
Despite these criminal actions, and in complete disregard for the fiduciary duty owed by the Crown to Indigenous Peoples, the RCMP’s response has been muted at best.
Should the roles have been reversed, I strongly suspect the response from law enforcement would have been significantly different. I cannot envision the RCMP standing calmly by as an angry mob of Indigenous people destroyed property, burned vehicles and threatened violence.
When the Mohawks erected barricades to protect their lands from the encroachment of a golf course in Oka in 1990, the state responded with heavily armed police and 800 soldiers from the Canadian Armed Forces.
When the Chippewas of Kettle and Stoney Point First Nation sought to reclaim their lands unlawfully taken by the federal government, heavily armed OPP officers responded with deadly force on Sept. 6, 1995, killing the unarmed rights activist, Dudley George.
When Wet’suwet’en defenders set up camps to protect their lands from industrial development, the RCMP responded with armed raids and mass arrests.
The people attacking the Mi’kmaq are victimizing members of one of the most marginalized and oppressed groups in Canadian society. They are terrorizing First Nations fishers who are eking out a moderate livelihood to support their families and communities, and the many Indigenous women who fill pivotal roles in fisheries-related activities. And yet law enforcement has done little to stand in their way.
It is a sad reality that, in Canada, when Indigenous people undertake peaceful non-cooperation measures to protect their rights, the state responds with militarized and violent attacks, but when violent non-Indigenous criminal mobs attack Indigenous people for exercising their rights, the state responds with muted police indifference.
This is the sorry state of reconciliation in Canada today.
Adam Bond is legal counsel for the Indigenous Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC)
This article was first published in The Chronicle Herald on October 16, 2020.