SAULNIERVILLE, Nova Scotia -- It was after dark when Lena Knockwood, her son Leon, and six other Mi’kmaq lobster fishers pulled up to one of the only restaurants in the rural fishing community of Saulnierville in southwest Nova Scotia last week. It had been a long day out at sea—a stressful one where they’d discovered the lines to their lobster traps had been cut, yet again. Days earlier, an angry mob of commercial fishermen ransacked a lobster plant that band members were using for storage. A van was torched and their chief attacked.
Just after 8 p.m. the group strolled up to Pizza Delight and saw a white man inside looking alarmed.
The man jumped up from his seat with his phone to his ear and ran to the back of the restaurant.
Knockwood was confused and worried, especially after the last few days of violence. “I thought, ‘Oh no, don’t tell me the commercial fishermen are coming to get us,” she said.
Restaurant staff said the man called 911 because he felt uncomfortable. Within minutes, two RCMP vehicles flew into the parking lot with lights blazing, and a private Facebook video, seen by VICE News, showed police speaking to the man in his truck.
“We were sitting there like, ‘Are you kidding me. What’s going on? Are those cops here for us? They can’t be here for us. We didn’t do nothing wrong,’” said Knockwood.
It was a misunderstanding, according to Nova Scotia RCMP spokesperson Sgt. Andrew Joyce. But the event illustrated how everyday life—going out for pizza—is fraught with tension over the battle for lobster brewing in the otherwise sleepy string of fishing villages along the coast of southwest Nova Scotia. It also shows how the police response time varies, said Knockwood, depending on who is calling.
It would become apparent why the man called 911 a few days later when police arrested him.
The recent violence is a flashpoint for a country that continues to grapple with systemic racism, particularly against Indigenous peoples, while the Canadian government, led by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, insists it is prioritizing reconciliation.
Friction in southwest Nova Scotia began mounting in September after the Mi’kmaq band Sipekne’katik First Nation, located 280 kilometres away, launched its own self-regulated lobster fishery in the area. The reaction from non-Indigenous fishers was swift. A boat and a van were torched and mobs formed, culminating in the stark image of the RCMP standing idly by as 200 fisherman terrorized Indigenous fishers at a lobster pound. Property was damaged and many lobsters died as result of the raid. Days later the same pound burned down in a suspicious fire.
The First Nations Mi’kmaq people have hunted and fished all over Nova Scotia for thousands of years, and their rights to continue doing so are constitutionally protected in treaties dating back to 1760. Over decades, however, their rights have been contested in court and on the water, leading to a Supreme Court of Canada decision in 1999 that affirmed their treaty rights to fish for a “moderate livelihood.” Both groups blame the federal government for the unrest, for failing over decades to define the terms of “moderate livelihood.” Minister of Fisheries, Oceans, and the Canadian Coast Guard Bernadette Jordan says she is working closely with First Nations groups to do so.
The lobster fishery is one of Nova Scotia’s biggest industries, with $1.2 billion in exports last year, and is the economic backbone of many rural communities. Southwestern Nova Scotia is the most lucrative lobster fishing spot in the Maritimes and its economy revolves around the commercial federally regulated lobster season, which begins late November and runs until the end of May. Many of the locals are upset that Mi’kmaq are fishing outside of these months.
On the one side, local commercial fishermen say they are concerned about conservation of lobster stocks. They decry that racism is at play, despite appearances.
“It’s about sustainability and it’s about two different sets of rules,” said Colin Sproul, vice-president of the Bay of Fundy Inshore Fisherman’s Association, referring to the federal-commercially regulated industry, which Sipekne’katik First Nation has a small stake in, and the moderate livelihood fishery. “It’s not appropriate for anybody to fish during the closed season for lobster.”
On the other side are the band members whose gear is being destroyed with impunity and who are being denied, because of their First Nations status, access to purchasing supplies like gasoline, bait, and lobster traps. They have also been dealing with unprovoked violence and intimidation from commercial fishermen for weeks. The battle is wearing people down.
Sipekne’katik First Nation Chief Michael Sack said his band is potentially facing a $1.5 million loss. Roughly 15,000 pounds of lobster is currently sitting in a warehouse without a buyer, he added, because dealers are too scared of being blacklisted by the powerful industry. Meanwhile, his band members are trying to protect that warehouse from being raided. Chief Sack has repeatedly criticized the RCMP for its inaction and called for Trudeau to send in the military to protect his community.
Band member Jason Marr says he’s struggling to hold it together. He was one of the Mi’kmaq fishers barricaded inside the lobster plant while a mob of 200 angry commercial fishermen threw rocks and pounded at the door last week. He saw one man urinate in the front seat of his van, while another smashed his windshield and someone else stabbed his tires. “It’s really hard to keep a level head when there’s so many trying to do harm to you,” said Marr. “I feel like I’m about to have a nervous breakdown.”
Marr described how he already owns successful businesses (a convenience store, a pizza place, and rental units) but he chose to be part of his band’s historic new self-regulated fishery for his daughters, who are both lobster fishers. They envision a future working in the lobster industry, he said. “We’re pretty broken right now,” he said, at a hotel in Digby after a group meeting with the chief. “It doesn’t feel good when people hate you.”
His daughter Jazlyn Paul, 23, was there too, and as she watched her father speak, tears streamed down her face. “Don’t cry, babe,” said Marr, holding her close.
On the wharf in Saulnierville last weekend, Mi’kmaq fishers were determined yet frustrated. Gavin Michael spent Sunday repairing his fishing lines, for the third time, after his gear was sabotaged at sea. So far he’s lost 80 lobster traps, worth $4,000—which does not include the loss of potential income those traps represent—and he’s worried whether he’ll make any money at all fishing for lobster this year.
He and his wife recently invested the compensation they received from the federal government as residential school survivors to buy a lobster boat. The Lilliana, which he bought for $5,000 and then put in hours of labour to get shipshape, now feels like a roll of the dice.
“We got to give it a shot. It’s been a tough year, especially with COVID,” he said, adding that he can’t afford to wait for the federal government to give them the green light.
Michael learned to fish here with local commercial fishermen 15 years ago and personally knows some of the people turning up at protests. He said he’s now been shunned. The locals he was friends with have deleted him on social media. In the local shops, customers shoot dirty looks, which he says didn’t used to happen.
While the commercial fishers say they are concerned about sustainability, conservation biologists say the small scale of the Sipekne’katik fishery on the lobster population won’t harm the stocks. Megan Bailey, associate professor and Canada Research Chair in integrated ocean and coastal governance at Dalhousie University, told CBC the 250 traps that Mi’kmaq fishers are putting in the ocean will have a negligible impact on lobster stocks. The number of traps has since risen to 500, as Chief Sack has shifted the band’s commercial boats to the area due to a lack of supply chain.
Still, it’s a tiny fraction compared to the several hundred thousand lobster traps allowed by commercial fishers during the federally-regulated season. Fisheries and Oceans Canada issued 979 commercial lobster licenses in 2018—more than any other fishing zone in the region—with each licence holder allowed to set 375 to 400 traps.
Canada’s most valued seafood export, lobster populations are healthy and sustainably managed, according to the federal government. Nova Scotia, particularly this area, makes up the majority of the Canadian lobster catch.
The rural communities in southwestern Nova Scotia are predominantly French-speaking Acadian fishing villages with sweeping views of the Atlantic Ocean. The Acadians are descendants from France, with a distinct culture and dialect. The fishing region is spread out over hundreds of kilometres of coastline that wraps around the bottom half of the province. Many homes and businesses proudly fly the Acadian flag and pick-up trucks seem to be the main mode of transport. Nearly everyone who lives here is connected to the lobster industry, with commercial licence holders at the top of the economic food chain. They are the ones with the nicest homes, luxury trucks, and paved driveways. Until recently, life was relaxed and peaceful.
“Right now it’s flipped upside down,” said local teacher Mike Gaudet, from a village called Concession. “I feel there’s a lot of hatred and racism… There’s a serious lack of education about treaty rights.”
The dispute has been long-simmering, he said, and he’s not surprised to see it come to a head. The government and police need to do more to quell the escalating tensions, he said.
“When buildings start burning and boats start burning, that’s serious. That’s war. They need someone to come here and settle things down. It needs to stop,” he said.
Just minutes up the road from where a mob of 200 commercial fishermen raided and vandalized a lobster pound used by Mi’kmaq fishers in West Pubnico, a sign outside the local pharmacy reads in block letters “We support our fishermen.” It was the same show of solidarity I heard from everyone that I canvassed up and down the coast: seniors buying groceries; women shopping at Frenchys, the chain of used clothing stores in the area; and couples parked at Chez Jean Dairy Twirl, a drive-up window that serves burgers and soft ice cream.
In the tiny community of New Edinburgh, however, neighbours who were caught in the crosshairs of the mob felt differently.
Paul and Susan Milsom live in a two-storey home across the road from a lobster pound used by Mi’kmaq fishers. They say they were “beyond scared” when hundreds of commercials fishermen arrived to stage a protest that turned violent last week.
“It was just crazy some of the things you could see them doing,” said Paul. “One guy started pulling rocks from my garden and lobbing them on Mi’kmaq cars.”
The protesters surrounded his home, blocking access on the road and cutting the local telephone line in an area which has little to no Wi-Fi signal—two things he found especially concerning because his wife suffers from chronic health issues and at any given time may need medical help.
They said there were trucks parked in their yard and people urinating on their property and lounging on their doorstep.
“Basically after the second day, I said, ‘I’ll sit back and have a beer and watch the shitshow.’ It’s all you can do. Hopefully they’ll stay away from the house,” said Paul.
Susan said she feels much better now that the mob has dispersed. She said it’s been difficult to deal with the added stress of violence when she’s not feeling well.
They couple said they hope the commercial fishermen start to realize the Mi’kmaq have a right to fish here. “You got two choices: You can live in a miserable hell or you can get along. I choose to get along,” said Paul.
Federal ministers condemned the recent attacks. On Monday, during a press conference, Indigenous Services Minister Mark Miller called the violence “disgusting, unacceptable, and racist in nature.”
“Under the Supreme Court’s Marshall decision, the Mi’kmaq have a constitutionally-protected right to fish in pursuit of a moderate livelihood. We will continue to uphold that right, and no act of violence will prevent Canada from upholding that right, nor from the Mi’kmaq people from exercising that right,” he said. “It is a disgrace to see these acts of violence and intimidation take place in this country.”
The RCMP amped up their presence in the community on the weekend following criticism that not enough was being done to protect people. Police set up various checkpoints in the area and brought in officers with special training in de-escalation. A Coast Guard ship is patrolling the water.
At a press conference Wednesday, RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki refused to address questions about why police stood by and watched while an angry mob vandalized a lobster plant used by Mi’kmaq fishers last week.
“We are managing this issue and we are as well, like yourself, deeply concerned by the acts of violence and the property damage that are linked to the dispute. Of course, we can’t be in every single location, but when we are there and when we are made aware of those actions, we will step in, we will intervene, we will investigate, and we will hold those to account who continue to pursue criminal activity,” she said, adding that police are committed to reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.
But Chief Sack wasn’t convinced.
“It’s the same old song and dance,” he said shortly afterwards. “For us, it’s not good enough. We feel that the hate crimes will continue. The threats are out there. Hopefully charges are laid.”
Chief Sack said his main concern is the safety of his members at sea. Lobster fishing is already one of the most dangerous professions in the country without the threat of violence. He said police and the federal government are both shirking responsibility to protect his band members while they fish and it’s forced him to seek a court injunction, which a judge granted, to end threats and interference over its lobster fishing in southwest Nova Scotia.
“We have people out there and their right is being infringed upon and there’s no one there to ensure their safety,” he said.
Last week, Michael Nickerson, 31, of Yarmouth County was charged with arson for allegedly torching a van in New Edinburgh. Police also charged Chris Melanson, 46, of Digby County, with assault in relation to the alleged attack on Chief Sack. Melanson says he doesn’t plan to fight the charge at this time.
It was Melanson who called 911 on Knockwood and the Indigenous fishers while he and his teenage daughter waited for their food to arrive at the Pizza Delight. He told VICE News he saw them looking at his truck and he was nervous because he was in a “pushing match” with Chief Sack on the wharf the day before and he had received threats. So he and his daughter took their salad, wings and pasta to go and waited in his truck for police to arrive. “I took no chances,” he said. “The community is scared.”
In the end, Knockwood and her group enjoyed a nice meal, but the night left her on edge.
“Everyone is shocked that it only took three minutes for RCMP to show up after a non-Native called,” she said, adding that in the case of Marr, the man barricaded inside a fish plant, police took nearly two hours to get there.
“There is systemic racism, it’s right there. Everyone’s just trying to turn a blind eye. Be in a Native person’s moccasins for a full day and see how you feel after that,” said Knockwood, standing on the wharf in Saulnierville, wearing a pair of grey rabbit fur-trimmed moccasins.
“You’ll see it and you’ll feel it.”