The Nova Scotia Lobster Wars

Under siege from violent terrorists, Mi’kmaq lobster fishermen turned to social media and chefs to make their voices heard and save their livelihood.
By Ivy Knight
November 13, 2020

This past September a mob of 200 people rose up against the Indigenous lobster fishermen of Sipekne'katik, Nova Scotia, in a blatant display of terrorism that lasted more than a month. Police were minimally present and, to date, only one arrest has been made. Social media showed the violence to the world and inspired a lobster boycott by Canadian chefs to pressure the government to step in.

The government—true to form in Canada in matters pertaining to Indigenous communities—has yet to do much of anything. 

Here’s the deal with Canada: We’re always perceived as the slightly boring, but super nice neighbors to the North. The Ned Flanders to America’s Homer Simpson. In Canada we know we’re more than that, a country of people shaped from birth by free healthcare for all, who embrace immigrants and play a staunch role as peacekeepers around the world. Also, we don’t consider ourselves racist; that’s often seen as an American issue. 

We were the freedom that slaves escaped to on the Underground Railroad. We continue the legacy as a safe haven for refugees; no babies are torn from their mothers and thrown in cages here. Our prime minister, the photogenic Justin Trudeau, greeted Syrian refugees with open arms when they arrived at Pearson International Airport in 2015. “Tonight they step off the plane as refugees, but they walk out of this terminal as permanent residents of Canada,” Mr. Trudeau was quoted as saying in the New York Times in 2015.

We’re good people, at least as far as new Canadians are concerned. But when it comes to this country’s first residents, well, that’s a different story entirely.

Mi'kmaq Nation Indian Brook fishermen
| Credit: April Maloney

Never has that been more apparent than this fall, as we watched non-native fishermen burn buildings and vehicles, destroy lobster, fishing boats and equipment, hammer nails into planks for homemade spike strips, and grin at cell phone cameras that filmed their actions. A mob of 200 engaging in terrorism against a peaceful Indigenous nation, while police stood by and did nothing. “I can’t believe how they are getting away with these terrorist, hate-crime acts, and the police are there,” said Sipekne'katik Chief Mike Sack to the Toronto Star. The one arrest made was for the non-native fisherman who assaulted him.

The dispute comes from treaties signed in 1760 that acknowledge the rights of the Indigenous people, who have fished and hunted in Nova Scotia for thousands of years, to continue to do so, regardless of hunting or fishing seasons. The treaty rights are also affirmed in Canada’s Constitution. But these rights have been contested for decades by federal fishery regulators and non-Indigenous fishing communities, with the line being that fishing in the off-season will endanger lobster populations. According to fisherman Lex Brukovsky, in an interview with The Buffalo Tribune, the Mi’kmaw are poachers. “Basically it’s poaching on a commercial level.” He claims that their fishing out of season will destroy the lobster spawning grounds and says that his catch has dropped 68% in the last two years. Fisheries experts say the Sipekne’katik’s operation is too small to have that kind of impact. In fact, according to the Globe and Mail, “When it comes to violating conservation policies, enforcement statistics suggest non-Indigenous fishers are the bigger problem.”  

Sipekne'katik Chief Mike Sack
| Credit: April Maloney

Chief Sack explains that the band has 11 licenses with 50 traps per license. “The commercial fishermen in the area have 935 [licenses], with 375 traps per. So they have about 400,000 traps, compared to our 550.”

Numbers like those, coupled with so much willful destruction from the non-native fishers, makes their justification about conservation a difficult line to swallow. 

“It’s proven that it’s not a factor, there’s no harm to the species,” says Chief Sack. “They just don’t want to share any resources.”

Gerry Brandon is a chef from the Dokis First Nation who owns L’Autochtone Taverne Americaine, an Indigenous restaurant in northern Ontario that is boycotting Nova Scotia lobster.

“Due to a lack of education [in North America] most people don’t understand what a treaty is, versus what a contract is,” says Brandon. “Treaties are on a much higher level than even the courts. The Mi’kmaq have rights inherent to the original treaty and yet they’re being stopped. Canada is complicit, in that they’re not using the police force to make sure that these rights are upheld.”

“No level of government has ever sided with First Nations people in the defense of our rights,” says Pam Palmater, a lawyer, professor, and activist who is also a member of the Mi’kmaq nation. “They are always in opposition to us politically, legally, and on the ground. You never hear them say to the non-native fishermen that the rule of law in this country is Mi’kmaw treaty rights are protected in the Constitution. We literally have no one to call, and that’s why Canadians have seen countless videos on social media of RCMP just standing around in the face of violent terrorism.”

Canada is the country where the MMIWG (Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women & Girls) movement began, started by Algonquin activist Bridget Tolley in 2005, leading to an inquiry that determined the deaths and disappearances a genocide

It is the home of Starlight Tours, a practice that dates back to the ‘70s wherein Saskatoon police would arrest Indigenous people, usually men, and drive them to the outskirts of the city at night, in the dead of a Prairie winter, where they would take their outer clothing and leave them to walk back on their own. One survivor was dropped off five miles outside of Saskatoon with only a jean jacket in -7°F degrees. 

On reserves across the country there are 63 long-term drinking water advisories in effect that have been in place for decades. Many residential schools—wherein the Canadian government took native children en masse from their homes and put them in boarding schools run by Christian brotherhoods—turned out to be rife with pedophiles operating under the dictum, “Kill the Indian in the child.” And they took it literally. It is estimated that up to six thousand children died in the residential school system, but nobody knows for sure because of all the unmarked graves. Started in 1894, this practice went on until the last school was closed in 1996. 

The mistreatment of the Native population is so entrenched in the psyche of white Canadians that it often doesn’t even register anymore. Sort of the way bad news piles into a mountain of awfulness, magically morphing into something you just tsk tsk at, before resuming your doomscroll

Until now. 

Mi'kmaq Nation Indian Brook fishermen
| Credit: April Maloney

The Mi’kmaq Nation rose up, not with violence or retaliation, but with Instagram, Twitter and Facebook, using the hashtag #alleyesonmikmaki to widen the scope of the mission. Social media companies, which profit by encouraging us to give away our souls, increasingly allow us to catch a glimpse of the reality that doesn’t make it to the evening news.

This fall we had a direct feed from Nova Scotia, courtesy of Indigenous youth like @alexametallic, @junnygirldecolonized and @brookewillisss, showing the full onslaught of the violence, abuse, and hatred that native people in North America have been fighting against for over 500 years. And the word spread, from the Mi’kmaw on the wharf to their followers across the country and around the world.

The Mi’kmaq have faced violence from non-native fishermen before. “We didn’t have a voice in the media,” says Palmater, whose new book Warrior Life: Indigenous Resistance and Resurgence was published this week. “We were never interviewed, our perspective was never portrayed. Now everyone has a cell phone, it’s pretty hard to argue with the evidence. Social media forces the media to do better.” 

The Sipekne'katik band sought court-ordered protection against what court documents cite as “a deliberate campaign of intimidation, violence and property destruction, perpetrated by non-Indigenous fishers and their supporters.” A judge ordered a temporary injunction on October 21 to stop anyone from interfering with the band's ability to fish lobster. 

“I don’t think any judge could’ve said no, with the footage and so many cameras around,” says Chief Sack. “There’s always been a lot of tension, but this is the worst it’s been. I’m not saying everyone down there is racist, but there is racism and the cameras bring it to the forefront.”

Mi'kmaq Nation lobster fishers
| Credit: April Maloney

From Vancouver to Nunavut, and Toronto to Halifax, chefs across the country joined a boycott of Nova Scotia lobster. Admittedly, not a lot of customers are splurging on lobster dinners during a pandemic, but the boycott is less about crippling the East Coast lobster industry than alerting customers to the Mi’kmaq struggle.

Out of all the chefs who’ve entered into the boycott, Montreal’s Chuck Hughes sells the most lobster, it’s an ingredient that he’s known for after besting Bobby Flay with a dish of lobster poutine on Iron Chef in 2011

“I want to be able to serve it proudly,” says Hughes, “but until things resolve I can’t do that. I took it off the menu to shine a light on what’s happening.” He’s spent the better part of two years filming in Native reserves across the country for his show, Chuck and the First People’s Kitchen. “I’ve physically lived and traveled in over 15 communities, I’ve seen beautiful things, but on the flip side, I’ve seen a lot of heartache and pain. I’m not a politician and I’m not a fisherman, but I’m a human being and I can see when something is wrong. And this, right now, is unacceptable on a human level.”

Chef Ray Bear
| Credit: April Maloney

Chef Ray Bear is an Acadian-Cree and owns Kisik Ridge, a 200-acre farm and restaurant overlooking the Bay of Fundy. “I’m very light skinned, you might never know that I’m Indigenous, so people feel they can talk freely around me, and that’s the worst.” He recounts the time a local farmer told him, “All natives are basically lazy drunks and have no right to steal the livelihood from the fishermen.”

Bear feels that overt racism has intensified during the reign of Trump. “People feel they can say whatever they want now. In the past, you’d hear passive remarks. And now? You can’t get any more aggressive than lighting trucks on fire and attacking people.” He was shocked by the levels of violence that erupted back in September. “These are racist and terrorist acts—I’m blown away that it went to that level so fast and nothing was done.”

“I don’t know the laws but they should be able to fucking live as freely as possible,” says chef and culinary Renaissance man Matty Matheson. “Do you know where your lobster is coming from? People think it’s Captain Highliner or Santa Claus!” He doesn’t sell lobster on his current menu at Toronto’s Matty’s Pattys, but does include a recipe in his new book Home Style Cookery. He is taking part in the boycott to show support for the native fishery. “We need to help each other, not try to destroy each other. The Mi’kmaw people should be able to fish all the lobster they want forever.”

So how is this dispute relevant to Americans, and why should they care? 

“The Mi’kmaw were the first to recognize the United States as a nation, with a treaty signed at Watertown, MA.” says Cheryl Maloney, Political-Science professor at Cape Breton University. “We were America’s first allies.” 

Maloney herself is a direct descendant of the treaty signatories. “Americans and Canadians, there’s a role you can play when things aren’t right in the world,” she advises. “Boycott, write letters, speak out. Make a small gesture that leads to a larger gesture.” 

And she’s happy to see the boycott in restaurants across the country. “It’s really positive to see chefs do the right thing.”

Cheryl Maloney sells lobster at the Province House
| Credit: April Maloney

On October 16 Maloney took as much lobster as she could haul up to Province House in Halifax, and sold it on the sidewalk. “People were lined up around the block,” she says. “They brought their money and wanted to be part of it.” She was surprised how quickly she sold out. The Mi’kmaw can legally go out fishing for lobster at any time, but they can’t sell it out of season. 

“We’re stuck. When we do sell we face the risk of being charged and prosecuted. We have to sell it illegally on the side of the road,” she explains. “We have to break those markets and pressure the government to have the legislation changed so that people can buy Mi’kmaw treaty lobster.” 

Chief Sack was just elected for his third term as Chief of Sipekne'katik, and this has been the most exhausting tenure to date. 

“We just want to establish our fishery, build our own lobster plant,” he says, adding that a trap making facility is being planned as well. “We can’t buy traps. Everyone in the area was told if they deal with us the rest of the commercial fishers will boycott them, intimidation and such. This has happened just since mid-September. We’ve been denied for bait and fuel too.”

Two weeks ago he received a phone call from Chief Terry Paul of Membertou, another Mi’kmaw community leader. What Chief Paul told him, about a secret deal they’ve been working on since spring, gave him hope, but he couldn’t breathe a word until an official announcement was made. 

On the evening of November 9, social media feeds exploded with unexpected news. A Hail Mary pass out of nowhere. Turns out, the Mi’kmaq Nation have not been taking this lying down. They’ve been cooking up a top-secret deal with British Columbia’s Premium Brands to purchase Clearwater, North America's largest producer of shellfish. The raging terrorists who made up those mobs—guess who they primarily sell to? You guessed it: Clearwater. 

In a statement on their website, Clearwater says that the company, “denounces racism in all forms” and asserts that “Neither Clearwater nor any of its employees are involved in these protests. We appeal for calm on all sides to ensure the safety of everyone involved.”

“In order to be in business, you first have to play the game,” said Chief Terry Paul in a press release. He is heading up the coalition of Mi’kmaw First Nations, including Sipekne'katik, that will take 50% ownership when Clearwater changes hands at the end of the year. "You have to play to win, and we won."

Hell yeah, they won. And the angry mob of white fishermen, ostensibly worried about conservation, while illegally exercising their might to dominate one of the most underserved communities in the entire country? Looks like they got a new boss. 

Lead photo by April Maloney.