The fishing battle is not about lobster – it’s about treaties

By Ana Nicole Collins and Stacia Loft

In February, as demonstrators across the country halted trains and stopped traffic in solidarity with Wet’suwet’en land defenders in northwestern B.C., Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asserted that Canada is “a country of the rule of law, and we need to make sure those laws are respected.” We have seen too many examples of settler/Indigenous conflict, and now, just eight months later, we are witnessing another flagrant violation of Indigenous rights, as Mi’kmaq fishers have come under violent attack for exercising their longstanding treaty rights to fish lobster. So how does the rule of law apply?

The problem is, that “rule of law” is a slippery phrase in this country. Canada has a habit of selectively choosing when to obey its own laws and human rights standards when Indigenous rights are at stake.  The rule of law is a principle of governance in which everyone, including the state, abides by a set of laws, which includes treaties, the Canadian Constitution, and internationally recognized human rights norms.

One foundation of our legal system comes from the inherent order in nature: social life and customs learned from the lands, waters, and non-human beings (plants, animals, and celestial bodies, for example) on how to live well. These inherent laws and traditions form the basis for the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, a human rights instrument that the Canadian government claims to endorse.

Another foundation are the Peace and Friendship Treaties, signed before 1779, that set out how settler and Indigenous peoples can live together in the shared territory and build respectful long-term relationships that benefit all. However, the aggression of settler fishers in Mi’kmak’i this week and the inaction of the RCMP indicates a broken relationship.

Amnesty International echoes Sipekne’katik Chief Michael Sack’s calls for Canada to address the threats, attacks, and discrimination against Sipekne’katik and Mi’kmaq throughout their territory. Canada and the provinces must ensure the safety and security of the Mi’kmaq people.

Video shows us that RCMP officers stood by while settlers broke the law by mob intimidation, throwing rocks, setting vehicles on fire, destroying two lobster storage facilities, and physically restraining Indigenous individuals. It is inexcusable that settler governments should allow the violence and hatred spreading against Mi’kmaq to continue.  In doing so, the RCMP, Canada and its provinces are contravening the Canadian Constitution and treaties, including international human rights standards and, yes, the rule of law. Why is the rule of law not being applied equally in this situation?

Meanwhile, provincial leaders, like their federal counterparts, as inheritors of the Peace and Friendship Treaties, must foster strong relationships with Indigenous peoples. Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil must show integrity and conscience and call for the attacks and violence to stop. he must use his position to bring the signatories of the treaties together. He cannot shirk his responsibilities as Premier to be a role model and demonstrate what a good treaty relationship should be.

This isn’t a fight about lobster. Everyone is concerned about the right to livelihood, the right to take care of one’s family, the right to be connected to the land that they grew upon and care for; values that are shared by everyone living on Turtle Island and that are ingrained in many covenants, agreements and treaties.  We have witnessed and experienced other examples when Canada and the Provinces have ignored their legal obligations and allowed violence and conflict to grow between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities. Today, it is critical that the Prime Minister and Premiers uphold the rule of law through leadership and respect for Indigenous rights.

Ana Nicole Collins is the Indigenous Rights Advisor at Amnesty International Canada.

Stacia Loft is an Articling Student at Amnesty International Canada.

This article originally appeared in The Chronicle Herald