Dossier / The Marshall Decision, Disinformation and the Revolt against DFO and the Media

The myth of 12,000 Mi'kmaq fishermen and the racist fisher

Excerpts from comments during and briefs to the Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans, November 1999

SHUNPIKING, December, 1999 / January, 2000 Volume 4, Number 31

YET THE MYTH WAS GENERATED that the 12,000 population of Mi'kmaqs wants to be 12,000 lobster fishermen. It's as if the 250,000 population of Halifax are all fishers. The immediate step facing Mi'kmaq communities has been how to get their fishermen involved in the short term. Despite inaccurate media statements and rumour, there are at this time very few Mi'kmaq fishermen involved in commercial harvesting. Sixty-four licenses will accommodate those in that area. We have been presenting options, not hard and fast positions ... Long-term solutions, however, will need to be worked out through dialogue.

--Chris Milley, Executive Co-Director, Mi'kmaq Fish and Wildlife Commission, 24 November 1999

* * *

When the Marshall decision came down, I recall getting it off the Internet fairly quickly. I knew the Conservation Council would be getting calls from the media, asking what the implications of this are from a conservation perspective. I went through the decision and it seemed fairly straightforward.

Aboriginal rights and treaty rights are entrenched in the Canadian Constitution of 1982. Maybe that was a surprise to some people, but not to us. We had some familiarity with case law and Supreme Court judgments around aboriginal rights and treaty rights, so it seemed to us that the logical next step would be for the crown, through the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, to sit down with the aboriginal leadership to start talking about the sort of regulatory regime that would be put in place.

I have never seen an issue that has been misportrayed so frequently and so routinely in the media provincially, regionally, and nationally, as some kind of wide-open fishery to be conferred to aboriginal people. The language constantly was "unregulated rights", "unfettered rights", "fish at will", and all those sorts of things. From the judgment, that clearly wasn't the case, and isn't the case, as the later material coming out of the Supreme Court simply reiterated what was said in the judgment.

-- David Coon, Policy Director, Conservation Council of New Brunswick, 25 November 1999

* * *

Many fishermen felt that media coverage was irresponsible and inaccurate. We have talked to a number of fishermen's representatives who gave media interviews that seemed to be solely aimed at getting them to say something inflammatory. In some cases, interviews were ended abruptly when it become clear that no threats of violence were going to be made. How many times did we watch the same images of angry pushing and arguing on the Burnt Church wharf, even weeks after it had happened? Of course, there was some good reporting, but more often than not, the most inflammatory statements by unelected individuals were the ones that made it into the headlines and sound bites. Examples of cooperation, dialogue, and leadership were hardly noticed in the press. And, perhaps more important, the media did little to facilitate debate and discussion, opting instead to focus on confrontation and conflict -- the kind of exchanges that, as they say, generate more heat than light.

-- Arthur Bull, Chair, Coastal Communities Network, 23 November 1999

* * *

I do not want to talk with you. I do not want to be interviewed by you. Do not turn that tape recorder on. I do not give my permission.

-- Don Julien, publisher, Mi'kmaq-Maliseet News, to CBC reporter Rob North, 24 November 1999

* * *

A lot of fishermen -- a lot -- in South West Nova have turned off CBC. It's the most irresponsible reporting I've ever heard. And that Parker Barss Donham is an ass.

-- Wayne Spinney, West Nova Fishermen's Association, Clare. (Donham had written a column in the Halifax Daily News and serialized in five other publications blaming the racism of "white" lobstermen for the conflicts in that area.)

* * *

There are a couple of legal questions that arose from the Marshall decision, along with some confusion surrounding how negotiations would occur and how the right was misunderstood to be an unregulated right. The fact of the matter is, when the Mi'kmaq made the presentation to the Supreme Court, it was very clear that the right was to be regulated. There was no pretence that the right was an unregulated right; the point that the right was regulated was made up front by Mr. Wildsmith (Senior Counsel) on behalf of the Mi'kmaq. How it became misconstrued to be an unrestricted, unregulated right and then further misconstrued to be a free-for-all for the Mi'kmaqs to go and rape the seas of all the resources is probably a function of the media, but I won't go there.

-- John Brown, Atlantic Policy Congress and junior legal counsel, Union of Nova Scotia Indians, 24 November 1999

* * *

What was the first reaction by inshore lobstore fishermen? Was it racism against Native people, was it greed -- like most comments that you read in the papers and heard on the news? It was not at all. Because of DFO, there was fear of the unknown ... we can and will work with the status Native fishermen side by side; this was a direction given to us by our fellow fishermen.

-- Hubert E. Saulnier, Secretary-treasurer, Maritime Fisherman's Union, Local 9, Saulnierville, 24 November 1999

* * *

The federal government had decided that the Aboriginal people represented by our organization did not represent treaty beneficiaries. Since that time, DFO has engaged in a campaign of public and private harassment and of distribution of hate propaganda ... DFO officials have been active in the media asserting that off-reserve and non-status Aboriginal people do not have Treaty rights.

-- Roger Hunka, Native Council of Nova Scotia

* * *

The Marshall Decision has been exploited by the media and we do not want to see the politicians do the same thing. The fishermen and the fishing industry as well as the native community should not be used as pawns in any political manner as we have seen in the past.

-- Norma Richardson, Eastern Shore Fisherman's Association, Musquodoboit Harbour, 24 November 1999

* * *

I think what's lost in the media and what I want to get across to the standing committee is that fishermen are standing up for their management rules, not the DFO's policies or the government's rules. In the lobster fishery and the inshore fisheries, especially the lobster fishery, most of the rules that conserve lobsters were put in place by lobster fishermen a hundred years ago and are still there and have clearly done a good job of conserving this resource. These rules have been proven to conserve the fisheries, unlike the DFO's rules, which have decimated fisheries such as the northern cod.

-- Graeme Gawn, Maritime Fisherman's Union

* * *

There are a lot of other players on the scene that there has not been that much mention about. We talked a lot about foreign fishing off the coast of Canada. When you talk about putting things into perspective, how do you think we can also make people understand that there are other players and tell them what percentage of the fish is being caught by foreign fisheries versus what the aboriginal people are asking for? I would just like to comment that if there was as much outcry about foreign fishing as there is about people living in Canada, maybe we would be able to deal with this issue in a more understanding manner.

-- Bernd Christmas, Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi'kmaq Chiefs, 24 November 1999

* * *

Yes, I wanted to go back to the issue of poaching that was raised and the laying of blame. I think most of that should fall on the news media people, because they're concentrating on the event of the day, the destruction of traps, and they were asking the fishermen, and they were not seeking balanced coverage. People in the area and across the nation of Canada saw that.

Well, every night, practically, you see the wharf, the burning of a truck, and the destruction of our traps in the water, with a non-native imitating a native on a boat, dancing with a wig, and it's crazy. I think the news media people are the ones to blame. And the federal government's inaction, with DFO and the RCMP helicopters and coast guards and patrol boats just watching idly what's going on ... they didn't do anything. They knew ahead of time.

As a Native person, I don't stay in my reserve home all the time. I go out. And I know a lot of people. Charlie was my high school principal. I knew ahead of time that the boats were coming in from other areas to the local wharf. There was talk. There was gossip that said it's going to go, it's going to go. They were preparing, even the DFO. The night before, I saw DFO officers being brought in from other areas, and the RCMP with police cars and helicopters. So they knew that was going to happen. They waited till the early morning, dawn, to hit. And they did. Anyway, (23 October 1999) we did not agree, after Mr. Dhaliwal issued his Thanksgiving message to Canada, with the restriction of 600 traps for Burnt Church and 800 for Shubenacadie. Our people told us very clearly at a public meeting not to negotiate. That was our marching order. But in the absence of no negotiations, DFO issued a communal commercial licence.

-- Larry Dedam, Councillor, Burnt Church First Nation, NB, 26 November 1999

Comments to :
Copyright New Media Services Inc. 2004. The views expressed herein are the writers' own and do not necessarily reflect those of shunpiking magazine or New Media Publications.