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 rights-holders exercising their treaty right to fish.
Settlers trapped two Mi’kmaq fishermen in a lobster pound, broke the building’s windows, burned a van outside and poisoned the lobster catch with chemicals. Footage shows police officers standing around while this happened, appearing 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 only people who has been arrested in association with the acts of violence and vandalism.
On Friday night, a lobster pound in Middle West Pubnico, Nova Scotia was burnt to the ground and one person was was sent to hospital with life-threatening injuries. RCMP are calling this “suspicious.”
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. In the last month it 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 17, 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 problem 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 defended their sovereign lands from unlawful development of the Coastal GasLink pipeline.
In 2019, Mi’kmaq grandmothers were arrested defending their lands from the Alton Gas project. And this weekend, land defenders from the Secwépemc Unity Camp were arrested for protesting the TransMountain pipeline. These are just 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 Peoples protest, they are considered enemies of the state. When settlers protest, they are treated as sensitive stakeholders critical to the resolution of the conflict.
The Council of Canadians has 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: Whose version of public security is behind these motives?”
The decision to surveil land defenders is directly tied to the police deciding that these 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 Defence Act.” This legislation criminalizes people protesting pipelines and other fossil fuel infrastructure, and levies fines as high as $10,000 a day for first-time offenders and up to six months of jail time.
These examples demonstrate 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. Settlers carrying out these acts are not being infiltrated by the RCMP, surveilled by the police, harassed or threatened at gunpoint, 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 to this kind of difference in policing:
Racial identity or racialization matters when it comes to how people experience policing. This case shows us that white protesters can get away with a lot before 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 being held at gunpoint.
As the council 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 with the RCMP here.
Many Mi’kmaq people, including Sipekne’katik Chief Mike Sack, are calling for 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 the Mi’kmaq peoples. Because the RCMP has been a vehicle of violence against Indigenous Peoples since its inception, many are skeptical that greater police presence would benefit Mi’kmaq rights-holders.
Jocelyn Thorpe, a history and women and gender studies professor at the University of Manitoba, told Global News last year that 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 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 the fact that the RCMP have historically been perpetrators 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.
This has been shown through solidarity events over the weekend and the outpouring of financial and physical support for Mi’kmaq fishers.
How to support Mi’kmaq Peoples asserting their rights
[email protected] to donate to frontline supporters
[email protected] to donate to the fisherman – legal fees, trap and gear replacement
Contact your representatives
Use this template message to call and email to your MPs, and if you’re in Nova Scotia, MLAs.
Follow social media accounts of people on the ground to get a firsthand account of the events as they unfold:
Sipe’kne’katik moderate livelihood fishery
To read more about the Council of Canadians’ past analysis of criminalization of Indigenous Peoples and People of Colour, check out:
Robin Tress is a campaigner with the Council of Canadians. This article originally appeared on their blog.
Image: Courtesy Sipeknekatik