For Mi'kmaq fishers, dreams of a peaceful harvest on N.S. waters repeatedly dashed

HALIFAX — Mi'kmaw fisherman Robert Syliboy says he dreams of peacefully trapping lobster off the shores of southwestern Nova Scotia.

But the hopes of the 27-year-old from the Sipekne'katik First Nation have been repeatedly dashed by the vandalism and arson that has descended on his community after it launched a self-regulated fishery in St. Marys Bay.

article continues below

One of his boats was burned at a wharf on Oct. 5.

"Everything I worked for was right there," he said in a recent interview at Saulnierville wharf. "My livelihood was on that boat. My whole life was on that boat.

"My people have faced every form of racism you can think of."

Five weeks ago, Mi'kmaq fishers in southwest Nova Scotia began harvesting lobster outside the federally regulated fishing season. They cited a 1999 Supreme Court of Canada decision that affirmed East Coast Indigenous nations have the right to earn a "moderate livelihood" from their catch.

The Mi'kmaq chiefs launched their fishery on the 21st anniversary — to the day — of the ruling that stated Donald Marshall Jr. had a treaty right to fish for eels when and where he wanted without a licence. Canada's highest court, however, later clarified that decision, stating the treaty right was subject to federal regulation.

When the First Nation began fishing in September, tensions between their boats and non-Indigenous fishers ignited almost immediately. A series of escalating events ensued, leading to the destruction of a lobster pound that had held the catch of the Indigenous fishers.

Mi'kmaq lobster traps were cut, large crowds gathered at the wharfs and hurled racist insults at fishers, and vehicles were set on fire. A lobster pound handling Mi'kmaq catch was burned to the ground, and big crowds damaged another lobster pound in New Edinburgh.

Syliboy's voice grows solemn and his face tightens when he describes what happened to his boat at a wharf in Comeauville, N.S.

After the arson, he says he took some time to step back to preserve his mental health and physical well-being, staying home for long periods in his community about 70 kilometres north of Halifax, where he has a four-year-old son.

"I tried to keep my mind off all the hatred," he said. "You should try living inside all of the racism. I'm tired of it ... I feel numb."

Fishing helps relieve the anger and anxiety, but he says when he's on the water he also discovers fresh damage to his gear.

"I'm being picked apart piece by piece," he said, estimating that about 300 of his traps have had their lines cut.

After each act of vandalism, he loses days of potential fishing because he must find fresh traps and rope. Now, he says, when he sets new traps he and his crew stay overnight on the water, keeping watch.

It has not always been this way.

Syliboy's life as a fisherman started joyfully. He learned from relatives in Esgenoopetitj, a Mi'kmaq First Nation that fishes for lobster on Miramichi Bay in New Brunswick.

The community, known formerly as Burnt Church, experienced tense conflicts with the federal Fisheries Department in 2000 and 2001 on the bay, over its attempts to create a livelihood lobster fishery.

Syliboy was a small child during those conflicts. When he visited Esgenoopetitj, he learned from fishers how to operate the boats and prepare the lobster gear they had fought to obtain.

He recalls overhearing the stories from elders about his people's treaty rights that were negotiated in the middle of the 18th century.

"It was only later in life that I learned of Donald Marshall Jr. and the case that occurred," he said.

"It means everything to me. After learning about that case, it inspired me to be more active and to be more open with my rights and share the knowledge and share the ability to fish with my community members."

He started to train other community members on how to fish.

Syliboy says he remains close friends with non-Indigenous fishers despite what has happened in recent weeks.

"I've been treated well by a lot of people and I think personally what happened here in Saulnierville, and what took place when we were bombarded with protesters, a lot of that is not local," he said.

Syliboy says he will not give up, even though some businesses are refusing to purchase his catch and his band is struggling to obtain buyers for its lobster.

"We're just here asserting our right," he said. "Doing what we're allowed to do. We're supposed to be here because our ancestors fought for this right."

"If we don't access the water then they fought for nothing."

This is the second of two profiles of non-Indigenous and Indigenous lobster harvesters working on St. Marys Bay in southwestern Nova Scotia.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 23, 2020.

Read Related Topics

© Delta Optimist
  • SUBSCRIBE TODAY!

    Subscription Club: $5/month or $50/year - Receive monthly deals from local merchants.

Opinion POLL

What are you doing more of while stuck at home?

or  view results