Prime Minister Justin Trudeau defended the federal government’s response to an escalating standoff over a Mi’kmaw fishery in Nova Scotia, saying Ottawa has been “extremely active” in trying to resolve the situation.
Speaking to reporters Friday, he called for an end to the violence and harassment that has been on the rise over the past week in several fishing communities in the southwestern part of the province.
“We are expecting the RCMP and police services to do their jobs, and keep people safe,” Trudeau said.
“I think there’s been some concern that that hasn’t been done well enough and that’s certainly something we will be looking at very closely.”
On Thursday, the chief of the Sipekne’katik First Nation urged Trudeau to step in and make sure those involved in the violence are prosecuted.
On Tuesday night, two facilities storing lobster caught by Mi’kmaw fishermen were raided and vandalized by a mob of hundreds of non-Indigenous commercial fishermen. The raids in the fishing communities of New Edinburgh and Middle West Pubnico were part of a string of incidents in the fight over a moderate livelihood lobster fishery that was launched by the Sipekne’katik First Nation in September.
On Friday, Sack also warned Sipekne’katik fishers about commercial fishermen “taking matters into their own hands” and urged members of the community to get off the water.
“A bunch of boats are on their way to haul our gear. DFO and RCMP please protect all involved,” Sack wrote on Facebook.
Mi’kmaw fishermen subsequently posted live video to Facebook of other fishing boats cutting lines to Mi’kmaw lobster traps, and photos of the wrecked fishing gear.
‘This community is out of hand’
The vice-president of a fishermen’s union in Nova Scotia has stepped down over fears for his family’s safety amid escalating threats by some non-Indigenous fishermen opposed to a self-regulated Mi’kmaw lobster fishery.
Joel Comeau, a former member of the Local 9 of the Maritime Fishermen’s Union, was supposed to meet with the chief of Sipekne’katik First Nation on Friday morning but abruptly cancelled the meeting.
Comeau said he’s received “a lot of flak from my people and a lot of intimidation” for his willingness to work with Chief Mike Sack to find a way forward.
“I’ve been followed right to my house with my family in the truck at seven o’clock in the morning and people with tinted windows sitting across my driveway, you know, intimidating me and some language that I probably can’t use on the air,” Comeau told CBC’s Maritime Noon Friday.
He said one of his friends and his friend’s young daughter had to be escorted out of a restaurant by police on Thursday.
“This community is out of hand. This community feels unsafe,” said Comeau.
Commercial fishermen are angry the fishery is operating outside the federally mandated commercial season, while the Mi’kmaq say they’re simply exercising their treaty rights and that their small-scale fishery would not negatively impact lobster stocks.
Even amid the escalating tensions this week, Comeau and Sack shared a message of calm and committed to sit down to better understand each other’s side.
Their exchange about the need for commercial and Mi’kmaw fishermen to work together was caught on video Wednesday, a stark contrast to the violence from the night before.
Mainstreet NS0:00Sipekne’katik chief and commercial fisherman call for peaceful and constructive dialogue
“I’m pretty sure me and Mike weren’t going to save the world or do any major changes, but a 10-15 [minute] conversation sometimes can open up a lot of doors, and it is a shame that it’s not going to happen, and the fishermen felt that I was betraying them and that I was going behind their backs,” Comeau said.
He said he presented a woven basket with tobacco to an elder at the Saulnierville Wharf on Treaty Day, and was looking forward to continuing his conversation with Sack.
He places the blame for what’s happening in southwest Nova Scotia squarely on the shoulders of Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan and the inaction of Department of Oceans and Fisheries officials.
Jordan said Thursday she is in ongoing negotiations with the Sipekne’katik First Nation, as well as in conversation with commercial fishermen.
Comeau said while commercial fishermen will have to find someone else to fight on their behalf, he also understands the anger and knows where it’s coming from.
“There’s no divide. The fishermen are united. The coalition is united,” he said. “The divide is with me and my family and my family is number one, so you’re not able to twist this to be blaming anybody. Every organization is working 120 per cent on this file. Everybody wants answers.”