By Mercedes Peters
One of the first things you’re taught when you’re training to be a historian in Canada is that Canadians have a memory problem. It can be a little jarring to some. This reality didn’t come as much of a shock to my system, though, because as a Mi’kmaw woman training to be a historian, I had learned that lesson in childhood and brought it to school with me. In a way, all Mi’kmaq are trained to be historians from birth. This isn’t only because we have to uphold our responsibilities to the land, our ancestors, and future generations. It’s also because we live in a world determined to erase and write new narratives over our existence, designed to invent claims of settler ownership where there are none and to oppress those who stand in the way of that ownership.
We as Mi’kmaq have rights that predate the existence of Canada. And as settlers began to move into our territory centuries ago, we made treaties with them—not to create rights, but to remind settlers that we had them, to protect our rights. We are taught as Mi’kmaq, not only to be memory-holders for ourselves, but to remind Canadians who live in Mi’kma’ki of the agreements that govern our territory, and the responsibilities they have. And because it is my responsibility to serve those reminders, and I’ve been doing this for a while, I would venture to argue that the Canadian issue with memory isn’t a benign one. See, we’re not just dealing with a regular memory problem: Canadians have a problem with deliberate forgetting.
I’m writing this on October 14, 2020. This morning I awoke to a news update from home where a large group of settler fishers surrounded two Mi’kmaw fishers inside a lobster pound on the South Shore of Nova Scotia. The settlers whipped rocks at the two Mi’kmaw men, and set their van on fire while they were trapped inside the building. Despite a persistent settler rhetoric of pushing back against a Mi’kmaw fishery in the name of conserving lobster populations, the settler fishers killed crates of lobsters at the pound, even poisoning some with PVC cement, and dumped the carcasses on the ground.
Video still of burning van, Riley Howe (Facebook). Image source.
This isn’t the first event like this that I’ve heard about over the course of the last month. Since September 17, when Sipekne’katik First Nation opened its moderate livelihood fishery off the coast of Saulnierville in Digby County—a place we call Taqmetek—news of settlers attacking Mi’kmaq—and harming jikej relatives—has steadily trickled out of home. The attacks aren’t always as blatant as lighting a van on fire, or physically assaulting a Chief, but they all target Mi’kmaw people.
First, settler fishers shot flares at Mi’kmaw boats. Then, they cut our lobster traps—though many of our skilled fishers were able to use their understanding of the water, and their memories, to retrieve them. Then, there came news of stores refusing to serve Mi’kmaq in the area. As of this week, we have non-Indigenous restaurant staff calling the police on Mi’kmaw patrons for simply being paying customers. In the early days of the Sipekne’katik fishery, when it became clear to settler fishers that the Mi’kmaq had more business being in the area than they thought, they took to targeting other settlers who were rumoured to have bought lobster from Mi’kmaw boats. There has also been an unending wave of death threats aimed at Mi’kmaq over various social media platforms.
What seems to be missing from settler discourse on the event is that the Mi’kmaw fishery is perfectly legal—and when we say legal, that’s referring to Canadian law, which I have heard non-Indigenous people say time and again “needs to be upheld” in this situation.
Here’s a short history lesson: Mi’kmaw territory is unceded, and has remained so since Europeans ended up on our shores centuries ago. When we talk of treaties, we’re referring to a series of Peace and Friendship Treaties established between 1725 and 1779 that Mi’kmaq, along with our allies in the Wabanaki Confederacy, signed to signal a relationship with representatives of the British Crown—those who had settled in Mi’kma’ki—and the Crown itself. These treaties were not signed to hand land over to settlers, but to welcome them into a partnership with us, a partnership that extended our responsibility of caring for the earth and our kin to settlers, a partnership that was supposed to ensure that our right to exist as Mi’kmaq—to live Mi’kmaw lives on Mi’kmaw territory—was protected. These treaties were promptly forgotten (though, many more esteemed historians than I—including L’nu’k elders—would argue they were deliberately ignored), and we’ve spent the generations that followed reminding settlers of the promises they made.
If we want to get technical, the treaties informing the Sipekne’katik decision to open the moderate livelihood fishery are the Treaties of 1752 and 1760-61. The Treaty of 1760-61 is the treaty that was affirmed in the famed Supreme Court of Canada R v. Marshall decision in 1999. Despite a persistent Mi’kmaw reminder of the fact that we are—by Canadian law—allowed to participate in a moderate livelihood fishery such as the one Sipekne’katik has launched in our own unceded territory—we have been ignored. The attacks continue. Canada’s memory problem strikes again.
DFO boat ramming Mi’kmaw fishers at Esgenoôpetitj/Burnt Church, 1999. Image source.
When I first heard that settlers were shooting flares at Mi’kmaw fishing boats, I immediately thought of Burnt Church. I was four when the Burnt Church crisis began; I don’t remember anything directly from that period of my life, and yet, it is central to my understanding of the ongoing battle for Mi’kmaw rights because I grew up hearing about it. And everything I’m hearing about what’s happening on the South Shore of Nova Scotia is almost a mirror image of the events that unfolded at Burnt Church twenty years ago.
In the aftermath of the Marshall decision, fishers from Esgenoôpetitj First Nation, known also as Burnt Church, exercised their right as Mi’kmaq to fish for lobster in Mi’kmaw territory and took to the water. Settler fishers—and here’s where the déjà vu really kicks in—were outraged, claimed that the Mi’kmaq were hurting their ability to fish, that we were depleting lobster populations, and that no one should have rights that they themselves couldn’t access. So, from 1999 to 2002, non-Indigenous fishers, in partnership with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) and the RCMP, launched a series of assaults on Mi’kmaw lobster boats—and people. And, just as we have seen in the waters off the coast of Nova Scotia, settler fishers cut Mi’kmaw lobster traps. They set Mi’kmaw vehicles on fire.
When these tactics did not deter Mi’kmaq from fishing, DFO and RCMP officers, in boats of their own, took to ramming Mi’kmaw boats, attempting to knock Mi’kmaw fishers into the water [see above photo]. The “crisis” ended when DFO reluctantly agreed to allow Mi’kmaq to fish—with imposed restrictions, including requiring Mi’kmaq to use DFO licences to limit Mi’kmaw boats in use. In a way, the battle on the water near Burnt Church remains unresolved. DFO continues its attempt to reign in Mi’kmaw rights and Mi’kmaq continue to remind settlers of the agreements they made. We maintain that our rights predate the existence of the settler state determined to confine them.
Claims by DFO, following Burnt Church, that they were governing Mi’kmaw rights in the name of “conservation” were always dubious. Mi’kmaw fishers represent only a fraction of the boats on the water and the majority of them are part of the commercial fishery, not to mention the fact that Mi’kmaq place utmost importance on conservation and the responsibilities we have to ocean animal populations. There was, however, following the years of the crisis, at least some sense that Mi’kmaq could fish on our own terms. DFO, the RCMP, and settler fishers, backed off for a while. Some settlers and Esgenoôpetitj Mi’kmaq even developed an uneasy partnership. But soon, they forgot. They always do.
Donald Marshall, Jr. Image source.
Burnt Church happened in the direct aftermath of the Marshall decision. Perhaps the most well-known and well-cited case involving Mi’kmaw rights, Donald Marshall Jr.’s stand against Canadian regulation of a Mi’kmaw practice older than the country itself has shaped not only conversations about the treaty relationship in Mi’kma’ki, but conversations about Indigenous rights Canada-wide. Donald Marshall Jr. was arrested for upholding treaty: he was fishing for eel in Mi’kmaw territory, practicing what he had been taught by the generations that came before him, and ignoring DFO regulations. Marshall is revered for his bravery in fighting for Mi’kmaw rights. But the stand he took goes further than that—this wasn’t just one man’s fight to catch and sell eel outside of the government-sanctioned season. This was a Mi’kmaw reminder. One that our treaty partners remain determined to forget.
There have been other famous reminders, some long before Marshall. There was Grand Chief Gabriel Sylliboy, who was convicted of hunting muskrat out of season in 1928. Despite the Chief’s reminder in provincial court of promises settlers made when signing the Treaty of 1752—a treaty he was raised to respect; a treaty we’re all raised to respect—the conviction was held by a Nova Scotia judge. James Simon, almost sixty years later, was hit with a similar charge when he was caught with a hunting rifle and shotgun shells that violated the Nova Scotia Lands and Forests Act. This time, the Supreme Court of Canada recognized his reminder: another reference to the 1752 Treaty that upheld his right to hunt. The conviction was struck down. The court granted Mi’kmaw rights.
No, not granted. Remembered.
Grand Chief Gabriel Sylliboy, 1930. Image source.
When Chief Sylliboy was pardoned by the Nova Scotia government in 2017, Lieutenant Governor J. J. Grant said that the pardon “helps [settlers] acknowledge and learn from the struggles of the past and memorialize those who sought to exercise their rights.” The problem I have with this statement is that there are a hundred just like it, repeated over and over to Mi’kmaq when we come knocking to tell our relatives that they have forgotten again. And here we are in 2020: Sipekne’katik has given another reminder. Our treaty partners have once again forgotten.
And so we continue in our pursuit to live as Mi’kmaq. We uphold our duty to remind our treaty partners of what they have promised many times over the years: that we are operating on responsibilities we have had since time immemorial; that we are enacting rights that predate all settler ties to this land. As many Mi’kmaq have said before me: we are not asking for them to grant us our rights. We’re reminding settlers that we have them already. And with the increasing number of “incidents,” “disputes,” and “crises,” as the media calls them, over the years, it has become unfailingly clear to me that this inability to remember is deliberate.
But, despite the violence, despite settler refusal of a resilient memory, a resilient Mi’kmaw present, and the future that entails, we will continue to serve reminders like the Sipekne’katik fishery, not out of enjoyment of being the proverbial thorn in the settler side, but because of our responsibility as Mi’kmaq. We endure attacks to ensure that our grandchildren can live Mi’kmaw lives without oppression. We endure attacks to demonstrate a different way of being. We endure attacks to protect our cultures, and also to protect our non-human kin: the animals; the lands; the waters. We endure, too, to protect the ones we entered into treaty with all those years ago, and their great-grandchildren’s children. The settlers who are intent on harming us, on forgetting what we’re here to do, we’re doing it for them too.
Feature Photograph: Sipekne’katik First Nation boats tied up at the Saulnierville wharf. Credit: Tina Comeau.