The Supreme Court’s so-called Marshall decision has unleashed a hurricane of unrest in the Maritimes that is being closely watched by First Nations.
The decision reaffirmed the right of the Mi’kmaq and Maliseet people to fish lobsters year-round – rights first recognized in an 18th-century treaty.
Mi’kmaq people started putting out traps for the tasty crustaceans, but that upset non-Native fishermen who aren’t allowed to catch lobsters now.
The non-Natives took to the water to destroy about 2,000 Native lobster traps. They also torched a sacred arbour in Esgenoopitj (Burnt Church), where spiritual services had been held. A couple of Mi’kmaq youths were injured when a non-Native man rammed their pickup after his garage was vandalized.
Twenty-five non-Natives have been charged in connection with the violence.
The non-Natives claimed the Mi’kmaq were threatening lobster stocks. But the Globe and Mail reported that non-Native commercial fishermen in the New Brunswick areas of the Gulf of St. Lawrence have close to 400,000 traps in the water.
Since the Marshall decision, Natives had had only 4,600 traps, mostly close to their communities. The New Brunswick Native’s catch so far amounts to 84 metric tons – which is 1.5 percent of the commercial catch. “Given the small number of Mi’kmaq First Nation fishermen, fears of overfishing are obviously exaggerated,” wrote Globe columnist Robert Pichette.
The Mi’kmaq allege that they were locked out of the lobster fishery before the Supreme Court decision. Native households were granted only permits for only two or three lobster cages. Meanwhile, non-Native fishermen were permitted dozens and even hundreds of traps each.
Other First Nations say the Marshall decision bolsters their land-claims fights.