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Graphic with the RCMP logo
Image: Dasser Kamran/Fulcrum

RCMP officers stood by while Mi’kmaq fishermen were trapped inside buildings by angry mobs, had their vehicles torched, and saw a portion of their harvest destroyed

This past week, Mi’kmaq fishermen in Nova Scotia were trapped inside buildings by angry mobs, had their vehicles torched, and saw a portion of their harvest destroyed, all while Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) officers stood by and did little to nothing to stop the violence.

On Oct. 13, reports detailed that RCMP officers stood by as a group of around 200 people prevented Mi’kmaq employees from leaving a lobster storage facility in Pubnico, N.S. 

Earlier the same day, a similar-size mob blocked Mi’kmaq workers from exiting a facility in New Edinburgh, N.S. The mob reportedly threatened to burn down the building with the workers inside, while livestreams showed the group throwing rocks at the building and smashing windows.

The RCMP were present at the scenes of the events, yet somehow the harassment and property damage continued. Last week, a Mi’kmaq fisherman’s boat was torched. This week, a portion of the Mi’kmaq live lobster harvest was destroyed, two fishermen were trapped inside a building by an angry mob, and a van torched. Mi’kmaq fishermen say they are fearful for their physical safety.

The harassment has been ongoing since the Sipekne’katik First Nation launched their fishery on Sept. 17. Commercial fishermen have claimed the fishery is illegal and endangers conservation. However, the right of the Mi’kmaq to operate a “moderate livelihood fishery” is firmly backed by treaty rights and legal precedent

R. v. Marshall, a Supreme Court of Canada decision from 1999, dealt with this very issue, and reaffirmed the Mi’kmaq right to earn a livelihood from fishing. Even if this were not the case, nothing excuses the violent and racist behaviour from the commercial fishermen. There are legitimate channels for expressing grievances in this country; when people express their grievances through vigilantism and violence, we expect the law to step in.

The RCMP say they are investigating the incidents, but no arrests have been made. To me, it fails to add up that RCMP officers could look on as an angry mob destroyed property and issued death threats, without making any arrests. 

A statement from the Nova Scotia RCMP said that officers tried to de-escalate the situations, but that “unfortunately events escalated with further damages incurred.” In the situation in New Edinburgh, officers “attempted to mediate” the situation and extinguished a vehicle fire. One would think that vandalism and death threats merit arrests, not failed attempts at mediation. 

The violence has escalated to the point that members of the First Nation fear for their lives. At a press conference held Wednesday morning, chief Mike Sack of the Sipekne’katik First Nation told reporters, “last night I was afraid somebody would die.” 

On Wednesday, Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde called for the RCMP and federal government to intervene “before someone gets badly injured or possibly killed.” 

Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller on Thursday described the events as an “assault” on the Mi’kmaq people. Both Miller and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau have appealed to the RCMP to keep the peace.

This dispute is one that should be settled respectfully around negotiation tables or in the courts, with Mi’kmaq treaty rights at the centre of the conversation. The violence and harassment against Mi’kmaq fishers is despicable, racist behaviour. Even more concerning is the failure of the police to stop it, revealing deeper systemic racism. Imagine if it were the other way around, and Mi’kmaq fishermen were harassing white people. Such behaviour would never be tolerated. The RCMP would arrest them without hesitation. The hypocrisy and double standards show a clear racist bias.

The failure of the RCMP to act recalls my own memories of the tragedy that occured this April, 10 minutes down the road from my home in Bass River, N.S. My middle school teacher, Lisa McCully, was killed in the largest mass shooting in Canadian history, over which the RCMP have been extensively criticized for not reacting as they should have.

RCMP Constable Heidi Stevenson, who lost her life in the efforts to end the shooting, will always be remembered as a hero in my eyes, and I am acutely aware of the trauma experienced by officers who responded to the scene. 

However, my community on the Colchester shore of the Bay of Fundy is traumatized by the fact that the shooter promenaded in a mock RCMP vehicle for 12 hours, while no emergency alert was sent out to inform residents in the area of the danger. My family, 10 minutes down the road from Portapique, N.S., did not even know what was going on until it ended.

We fund the RCMP so that they can protect us, but recently, I have not felt protected. The Mi’kmaq in south-western Nova Scotia do not feel protected. The Black communities in this province do not feel protected. If this is the case, what are we even funding them for?