UN committee calls on Canada to respond to claims of racist violence against Mi'kmaw fishers

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Mi'kmaw lawyers requested intervention from the United Nations committee on the elimination of racial discrimination. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Mi'kmaw lawyers requested intervention from the United Nations committee on the elimination of racial discrimination. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press - image credit)

A United Nations committee has asked Ottawa to respond to claims it didn't properly intervene in or investigate racist violence against Mi'kmaw fishers in Nova Scotia last fall.

The committee on the elimination of racial discrimination outlined its request in an April 30 letter to Leslie Norton, Canada's permanent representative to the UN in Geneva.

The committee has penned about a dozen similar letters to Canada on other matters since 2008.

Most recently, in 2020, it called for a stop to construction of three major resource projects in B.C. — the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, Site C dam and Coastal GasLink pipeline — until affected First Nations gave their full consent.

The call was unsuccessful and work on those projects went ahead.

Nevertheless, Pam Palmater, a Mi'kmaw lawyer and one of the authors of a submission made to the UN committee requesting intervention, said she considers the committee's involvement "a significant political lever."

DFO reviewing letter

At a minimum, Palmater told reporters Monday she hopes it will compel Canada to reconsider its position on the Mi'kmaw fishery.

"We know they're not going to send an army in here and take over Canada or anything like that," Palmater said. "It's about calling attention to both Canada and Canadians that something isn't right here, and Canada needs to come to the table in a good way."

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans and Global Affairs Canada confirmed Monday that they had received the letter and would respond to the committee's inquiry.

Global Affairs Canada added that responses to the committee under its early warning and urgent action procedure are confidential.

Sipekne'katik fishery

In September, the Sipekne'katik band launched a self-regulated lobster fishery in southwest Nova Scotia to significant opposition from non-Indigenous commercial lobster fishers.

Many commercial fishers say no harvesting should happen outside the federally regulated commercial season in the area, which runs from late November to the end of May.

Mi'kmaw lawyer Pam Palmater is one of the authors of a request for intervention from the United Nations in Nova Scotia's longstanding lobster fishing dispute.
Mi'kmaw lawyer Pam Palmater is one of the authors of a request for intervention from the United Nations in Nova Scotia's longstanding lobster fishing dispute.(Submitted by Pam Palmater)

Mi'kmaw fishers argue they have a treaty right to fish for a moderate livelihood outside the federally regulated season, based on the 1999 Marshall decision from the Supreme Court of Canada.

In mid-October, the conflict reached a fever pitch with the destruction of property and hundreds of lobster caught by Mi'kmaw fishers at a pound in Middle West Pubnico, N.S. A few days later, the lobster pound was burned to the ground.

UN letter

The UN committee's letter refers to "escalating" acts of racist hate speech and violence between September and December, especially between Oct. 13 and 17, the period during which the pound was vandalized and destroyed.

The committee said it was concerned about allegations of a lack of response by Canadian authorities, and it set a deadline of July 14 for Canada to respond with information addressing the following:

  • How Canada investigated alleged acts of racism against the Mi'kmaq.

  • How Canada investigated an alleged lack of adequate response by authorities to those acts.

  • What Canada did to prevent further acts of racism against the Mi'kmaq.

  • What Canada did to respect, protect and guarantee fishing rights and other rights of the Mi'kmaq.

In December, Sipekne'katik Chief Mike Sack halted talks with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans after reaching an impasse over the moderate livelihood fishery.

The band is planning to launch a new self-regulated fishing season next month.

DFO says violence not tolerated

DFO said in an emailed statement that it has been "clear from the beginning" that all acts of violence, intimidation, or destruction of property will not be tolerated.

"In response to the events in southwest Nova Scotia last fall, both the coast guard and RCMP officers were brought in to support DFO officers. As a result of their enforcement efforts, 34 charges have been laid against individuals for a variety of actions, including an assault against Mi'kmaw fishers and destruction of their property," the statement said.

The email noted there is an ongoing police investigation into these matters.

"DFO will continue to work with RCMP, the coast guard, and other bodies to ensure that all harvesters and community members are safe and supported, as we work collaboratively to implement First Nations' treaty rights in partnership and through dialogue. We will continue building a more inclusive country, free from racism and discrimination," it said.

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