As many University of Maine students know, at the bottom of nearly every official UMaine email and before every event there is a land acknowledgment. It is an acknowledgment that the university is on the land of the Penobscot Nation. The Penobscot people are a part of the Wabanaki Confederacy, which includes Indigenious nations from around the Merrimack river in Massachusetts and New Hampshire up through Maine and into the Maritime region of Canada. This includes the Mi’kmaq nation, which resides in northern Maine and parts of Atlantic Canada. A specific Mi’kmaq nation, the Sipekne’katik First Nation has made news recently due to growing tensions with commercial fishermen, who are protesting and attacking Mi’kmaq fishermen. The Sipekne’katik First Nation is issuing lobster licenses outside of the traditional season, which is well within their sovereign rights. Not to mention that it is wrong to prevent people from fishing when they have done so for tens of thousands of years. Such rights have been codified into law for many years.
The rights to fish were first guaranteed in a Peace and Friendship Treaty with the British Crown in 1760. According to the Canadian encyclopedia, the guarantee was to secure “the right to hunt, fish, farm land and earn a reasonable living without British interference.” It goes without saying that the Mi’kmaq hunted and fished on the land for tens of thousands of years before the arrival of the British, but this is the first time it had been codified into written law. This law is the supreme law of the land under the Canadian Constitution Act of 1982, which recognized and affirmed treaty rights held by first nations. Treaty rights are important because they protect the land and group rights of Indigenous people. They also maintain recognition of Indigenous nations as independent entities capable of self governance. The 1760 treaty was upheld by the Canadian supreme court in 1999. The Marshall decision affirmed the treaty in its entirety, but gave the Canadian federal government rights to regulate it within reason.
On Sept. 17, the first lobster licenses were issued by the Sipekne’katik First Nation in Nova Scotia to its fishermen. According to The Guardian, “flares [were] shot at them from boats, prompting local chiefs to declare a state of emergency,” and several days later “nearly 100 boats moved into the bay to haul up the Sipekne’katik lobster traps.” The aggression by the fishermen is not only interfering with the livelihood of Mi’kmaq families, they are preventing them from exercising their constitutional rights.
The commercial fishermen cite fears of overexploitation of out-of-season fisheries. The fears seem well founded until you find out that the Mi’kmaq, as of now, has only issued 10 licenses, with 50 traps per license allowed. Megan Bailey, Canada Research Chair in integrated ocean and coastal governance at Dalhousie University, says that “If we look at kind of what the commercial effort is normally in that area and it’s hundreds of thousands of traps.” This seems to be a classic case of throwing stones in glass houses.
Thankfully, several members of the Canadian Parliament have now proposed the creation of a joint First Nation and Crown organization to set up new fisheries and ensure ample lobster stock. The Sipekne’katik are also planning on establishing a post to ensure sound practices.
It may be an American thought applied to a Canadian situation, but I do not think that rights are seasonal. Rights are year-round and non-negotiable, especially when families depend on that right to feed themselves American and Canadian history is marred by the mistreatment of Indigenous peoples, and these societies will only be free when the rights of every cultural group are protected, including self-determination. If you have a few extra dollars kicking around somewhere, I suggest using them to support treaty rights. The Sipekne’katik set up a bank account for donations. Their PayPal and E-Transfer is monicah@Sipeknekatik.ca.