Mi’kmaw and Wolastoqiyik scholars say that treaty rights must be respected as Mi’kmaw fishers in Nova Scotia face hostility and physical attacks for fishing.
Graydon Nicholas, Elder Miigam’agan and Pamela Palmater shared their views on the online panel organized by St. Thomas University, “Peace and Friendship Treaties, Marshall Decision, [and] Self-regulated Fishery,” on Nov. 18.
Now teaching Native Studies at St. Thomas University, former Lieutenant Governor Graydon Nicholas is a Wolastoqiyik from Tobique. Nicholas reviewed the history of the court decisions related to the execution of rights found in the 1752 Peace and Friendship Treaties, beginning with Gabriel Sylliboy (Whycocomagh) in 1928 and James Simon (Shubenacadie) in 1985, all the way to the Marshall ruling in 1999.
Nicholas reminded attendees that only sovereign nations can enter into treaties, which reinforces the rights found within, including the right to fish.
Elder Miigam’agan’s life work has been concerned with what she terms “cultural revival.” She is a teacher of Mi’kmaw grandmother longhouse traditions among other endeavours.
Miigam’agan outlined the on-the-ground reaction in her community of Esgenoôpetitj (Burnt Church) when the Marshall decision was made in 1999: People in Esgenoôpetitj were excited and celebrated for “it was an acknowledgement of our rights” but the “excitement was quickly halted.” The community was repeatedly “severely assaulted” and “endured three years of severe violence.” The incidents in Esgenoôpetitj were traumatic and shocking.
Nicholas said of the Esgenoôpetitj fishermen: “their rights were violated” and specified that the authorities were wrong in their vicious approach.
Heavily affected by the events, Miigam’agan explained: “it’s still difficult” and “it’s still hard to talk about it.”
Miigam’agan clarified that when the Esgenoôpetitj lobster fishers made their stand, “it was not something that happened over night, it was 10 years in the making.” The community had been preparing in the years leading up to the Marshall decision; the elected council “was a strong voice for the community” that had “quickly developed a fishing management plan,” much like the Mi’kmaw fishers operating in 2020.
For Miigam’agan, the community felt “the heavy hand of Canada,” in the violence of the reaction. “It was much more than just the fishing that was disrupted in our community,” she clarified, mentioning the work of the elders, like Miigam’agan’s own mother, in collecting healing plants and the PTSD which many members of the community suffer from. The violence also led to a “breakdown of relationships” between Indigenous, Anglophones and Francophones in the area, relationships that had already been fraught.
Originally from Ugpi’Ganjig (Eel River Bar) First Nation, Pamela Palmater is the Chair in Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University. Palmater was pleased to hear the two previous speakers because “people don’t realize the disconnect between the decisions” and the applications of those decisions in communities. For her, “all of our nations have suffered genocidal laws (…) for centuries.”
Indigenous people have the “obligation to protect the precious ecosystem” because they rely on it for life, as opposed to the commercialized relations that govern other relationships. For Palmater, “our people will still step up” and request their rights, even after all that has been done to them. She wishes more people understood that Indigenous groups in the area “were never conquered, we are sovereign people.”
Palmater added “there’s no such thing as incremental rights (…) you either have them or you don’t” so Canada needs to stand by its treaties and decisions.
In terms of the processes, Palmater considers that “we have to have this discussion amongst ourselves [Indigenous communities] first (…) make these decisions ourselves before we sit down with government” so communities don’t have to be constantly reactive to government decisions.
Despite the “endless, useless, demeaning meetings” that have been the negotiations in the past, Palmater sees negotiation as the only avenue. She is very proud of the communities “who take that risk -we know the consequences” but “our sovereignty requires that we make this decision.”
Palmater recognized and celebrated that “the vast majority of Canadians were on our side” this time, with numerous statements of support for the Mi’kmaw fishers from different sectors, for example. However, she cautioned that this change in opinion is not luck: “the reason that it’s changed is us [Indigenous people]. (…) we’re the ones doing the work.”
In the context of the university, Palmater added that “the purpose of education is to inspire action” to address existing problems; if action does not follow, there is no point to education.
The event, which followed a Nov. 17 viewing of Alanis Obomsawin’s documentary on Esgenoôpetitj, Is the Crown at War With Us?, was organized by the St. Thomas University’s Senate Committee on Reconciliation.
Sophie M. Lavoie is an editorial board member of the NB Media Co-op.