Lobster season is officially over for the Mi’kmaq of Esgenoôpetitj (Burnt Church) First Nation, but their struggle with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans continues.
“We closed the lobster fishery on October 7 and went straight into salmon fishing,” hereditary chief Lloyd Augustine explained in a telephone interview, “And already we’ve had a truck, a couple of nets and some salmon seized by the DFO.”
Augustine says about eight Mi’kmaq fishers are exercising their right to earn a moderate livelihood by salmon fishing in nearby Tabinousac River.
The salmon fishery opened after almost two months of open, and often violent, hostility between the Mi’kmaq, the DFO and non-Native commercial fishers, many of whom are represented by the Maritime Fishermen’s Union. The dispute was over the EFN regulated fall lobster harvest.
The Mi’kmaq say a 1760 treaty gives them the inherent right to fish, harvest and hunt their Nation’s natural resources, and with that inherent right they are able to legislate their use of their resources.
Last year, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that treaty was binding, therefore allowing the Mi’kmaq to earn a moderate livelihood by fishing year-round. However, two months later the court amended its ruling by adding that the fisheries minister could regulate the fishery for conservation purposes.
That ruling led to this fall’s crisis, though Esgenoôpetitj Chief Wilbur Dedam says the struggle over an aboriginal treaty fishery really started about nine years ago with an earlier court decision known as Sparrow.
To date, the DFO says publicly that it seized more than 5,000 lobster traps from Esgenoôpetitj fishers since the EFN lobster fishery opened in August—a figure Augustine disputes.
“The figure is more like 1200,” he says.
The numbers generated by DFO were based on all traps seized from Miramichi Bay, regardless of whether they bore EFN tags or not. The number quoted by Augustine is based on traps that bore EFN tags and belonged to Mi’kmaq fishers who agreed to abide by the EFN Fishery Act. The other untagged traps could have belonged to anybody, including Native or non-Native poachers.
However, in the maddening world of media spin doctoring, the DFO released its skewed, unreliable figures to justify their unjust enforcement of the EFN fishery.
On September 19, the EFN agreed to end their lobster fishery on October 7 rather than October 31, as planned, to appease the DFO.
The community reasoned that since the water was cooling sooner than expected, the lobster were migrating further out from shore and, having had most of their enforcement vessels seized illegally by the DFO, the Esgenoôpetitj Rangers were unable to ensure the safety of Mi’kmaq fishers who would have to travel more than 20 kilometres to set traps.
It wasn’t enough for the DFO.
Two days later, the DFO issued an ultimatum to the EFN, ‘Get your traps out by 11:00 a.m. the next day or we’ll remove them for you.’
What ensued was 24 hours of fear, paranoia and anxiety for the people in Esgenoôpetitj. The next morning, hundreds of people gathered on the shore to send a message of unity to the DFO who were expected to arrive en masse at 11:00 a.m. The DFO didn’t come as scheduled; instead they opted to terrorize the psychological and physical warfare for more than two weeks.
Three separate reports of gunfire during the four days after the deadline added to the tension. Two incidents allegedly originated from the Mi’kmaq side, yet only three non-Native men have been charged to date. That incident happened in the early morning of September 22. The men charged, one of whom is a commercial fisher, were found intoxicated with firearms in their possession at the wharf in Neguac (the town adjacent to Esgenoôpetitj) an hour after four gunshots were heard.
“They [the DFO] kept playing cat-and-mouse games everyday,” Augustine says. “They’d come in, try to seize as many traps as they could, then we’d chase them away.”
St’at’imc Chief Garry John traveled to Esgenoôpetitj from Seton Lake Band in interior of B.C. to support the Mi’kmaq and demonstrate his Nation’s solidarity with them.
Like Augustine, John also decries the DFO tactics as an exhausting game of cat-and-mouse, yet quickly adds that whenever DFO vessels were approaching, he’d jump into a boat with the warriors to protect what precious little the Mi’kmaq had left.
“I saw a community of people pull together against an army of DFO,” John says. “People in small boats who were prepared to fight knowing that the DFO were armed with guns and pepper spray.”
John left Esgenoôpetitj on October 7. On his way home, he was discouraged when he heard that the DFO were harassing the Mi’kmaq for salmon fishing.
“The fellow I was staying with in Esgenoôpetitj earns $220.00 a month on social assistance and he had 12 of his 15 lobster traps seized by DFO,” John laments.
“The DFO has taken so much from the Mi’kmaq and now they’re continuing to harass them by seizing their salmon fishing equipment.
“By taking away all their traps and nets, the DFO is violating the Mi’kmaqs’ right to earn even a moderate living—now they’re earning no living—but I doubt that’s occurred to them.”