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Indigenous Fishing Rights in Canada

Indigenous Fishing Rights in Canada
According to Statistics Canada, a 2021 census revealed that 1.8 million Indigenous people reside in Canada, equating to 5% of the overall population. The Mi’kmaq are a First Nations tribe, the first inhabitants of Nova Scotia. The Mi’kmaq have historically relied on fishing as a livelihood, however, several cases have brought to the forefront concerns over Indigenous fishing rights in Canada.

Poverty in Indigenous Communities

“Of the 1.8 million Indigenous people living in Canada in 2021, 18.8% lived in a low-income household, as defined using the low-income measure, after tax, compared with 10.7% of the non-Indigenous population,” said Statistics Canada. Poverty in such communities is in part a historical reminder. According to Indigenous experts, Melisa Brittain and Cindy Blackstock, one of the major causes of poverty within Indigenous communities is the effect of colonization — the “direct result of the dispossession of Indigenous peoples of their lands and livelihoods,” the Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies (OACAS) said. Brittain and Blackstock describe this as “poverty by design.”

The Indian Act, which came about in 1876, made it “difficult for Indigenous people to participate in the non-Indigenous economy or profit off of activities such as farming” and fishing. The Indian Act, which originated to assimilate the natives with the colonizers, “has led to trauma, human rights violations and social and cultural disruption for generations of Indigenous peoples.”

The consequence of colonization for indigenous communities is economic dependency. Previously, Indigenous peoples ended up having to leave their resource-dense lands, disrupting livelihoods and causing ever-greater economic dependency.

Marginalization and colonization have led to conditions of poverty among the Indigenous. Indigenous people lack access to education, safe water and proper shelter, among other issues. A lack of investment and funding in these communities exacerbates poverty.

Fishing as a Livelihood

For thousands of years before European colonization and the subsequent industrialization that came with it, indigenous populations engaged in sustainable fishing practices as a livelihood. The Tsleil-Waututh, originally occupying the land that is now modern Vancouver, used weir traps to capture salmon coming to spawn. They did so sustainably by releasing any females caught. A male can mate with up to 10 females, thus keeping the population stable. During European colonization, settlers tore down the weirs set up by Indigenous people.

In Nova Scotia, the Mi’kmaq are taking a stand against historical poverty by fighting for Indigenous fishing rights in Canada. This fight initially began in Canada’s Supreme Court.

Court Cases on Indigenous Fishing Rights in Canada

  • R. v. Sparrow (1990). In a matter citing Aboriginal rights as a defense, the Supreme Court debated whether or not Indigenous people could fish on land the Indigenous traditionally call their own. In the end, Sparrow proved that his people historically fished on these lands and that fishing had cultural importance. Based on these reasons, Canada did allow this fishing. But, Sparrow was only a lone fisherman. The courts still had to determine if Indigenous people had the right to engage in commercial fishing.
  • R. v. Van der Peet (1996). Authorities charged an Indigenous woman for selling fish to a non-native. She claimed that it was part of her Aboriginal rights. This case pivots on the issue of Indigenous culture prior to colonization. If the Indigenous communities can prove that commercially selling fish is a historic cultural practice, they could continue the practice. If not, individuals would need to acquire permission from the Canadian government to commercially sell fish.
  • R v. Marshall (1999). Authorities arrested Marshall, a Mi’kmaw, for selling 210 kilograms of eels without a license. The final ruling of the Supreme Court allowed Indigenous peoples the right to fish and sell commercially to make a “moderate livelihood.” The diameters of a moderate livelihood are, two decades on, still contested, effectively opening the door to more substantial commercial fishing for aboriginal communities, or at least not closing it. The fisher must pass the test outlined in Van der Peet. Following R v. Marshall, the Mi’kmaq peoples in Nova Scotia began lobster fishing, giving rise to the so-called ‘Lobster War’ in Nova Scotia.

The Lobster War

In 2000, after the Marshall case, the Mi’kmaq began setting traps to harvest lobster to “earn a moderate livelihood from fishing and hunting,” as is their right. Video footage showed violence erupting after a Department of Fisheries and Oceans patrol boat rammed native Mi’kmaq fishing boats.

However, 22 years on, the war continues. The Mi’kmaq face “intimidation, bullying, threats and acts of violence by non-native fishermen,” Sierra Magazine reported. The non-native fishermen cite concerns over unsustainable fishing practices on the part of Indigenous people, however, there is no evidence to prove this.

A Victory

In 2020, the Mi’kmaq in Nova Scotia announced a victory that will combat the long-lasting effect of colonization and the poverty it has imposed on Indigenous peoples. Mi’kmaq communities purchased the Nova Scotia-based company Clearwater Seafoods, in partnership with Premium Brands Holdings Corporation, for $1 billion CAD. This is the “single largest investment in the seafood industry by any Indigenous group in Canada,” the Guardian reported.

The acquisition opens doors of opportunities for these communities, a step away from punitive colonial legislation, giving them a “seat at the table” and a move away from “poverty by design.” The conflict in Nova Scotia represents a deeper governance issue. In an October 2020 article that The Conversation published, researchers Lucia Fanning and Shelley Denny suggested “developing a mechanism by which Mi’kmaq can legitimately contribute to the governance of fisheries as an integrated whole.” Indigenous Canadian fisheries are fighting for progress to support themselves, make a modest living and gain the opportunity to pull themselves out of poverty by design, unfairly introduced in a bygone era.

– William Fletcher
Photo: Flickr