HALIFAX — A Mi'kmaq First Nation that encountered violence after launching a self-regulated lobster fishery last fall has filed a lawsuit against non-Indigenous fishers in Nova Scotia, the RCMP and the federal government.
In a statement of claim filed Friday with the Nova Scotia Supreme Court, the Sipekne'katik First Nation alleges that commercial fishermen stole and damaged hundreds of band members' traps and engaged in a co-ordinated campaign of intimidation and harassment.
The lawsuit alleges that between 75 and 100 boats operated by non-Indigenous fishers headed to St. Marys Bay near Saulnierville, N.S., where they were used in late September 2020 to "intimidate and harass one or more of the plaintiffs, and to steal or damage their lobster traps."
None of the allegations has been proven in court. A representative for the non-Indigenous fishers could not be reached for comment.
The lawsuit follows months of tension surrounding a moderate livelihood lobster fishery that the band launched on Sept. 17, 2020, before the opening of the federally designated fishing season. "The opening of the moderate livelihood fishery ... provoked a violent response from non-Indigenous commercial fishers and their supporters," the lawsuit says.
The court action also alleges that non-Indigenous fishers operated their vessels in a reckless manner, "intentionally driving close to certain of the plaintiffs' vessels or creating large wakes to swamp the ... vessels, threatening the safety of one or more of the plaintiffs."
Indigenous fishers also claim they were chased, swarmed and surrounded on the water, and that some non-Indigenous fishers fired flares at them.
Indigenous fishers in Nova Scotia argue that a 1999 Supreme Court of Canada decision affirms the Mi'kmaq treaty right to fish for a "moderate livelihood" when and where they want — even outside the federally regulated season. That decision was later clarified by the court, however, which said Ottawa could regulate the Mi'kmaq treaty right for conservation and other limited purposes.
The plaintiffs include about 30 Indigenous fishers who took part in the band's food, social and ceremonial lobster fishery, as well as nine who participated in the moderate livelihood fishery. Five band members took part in both fisheries, the document says.
Among the named defendants are the Bay of Fundy Inshore Fishermen's Association and more than two dozen owners, operators and crew of various fishing boats and enterprises in western Nova Scotia.
The lawsuit alleges that the association "actively encouraged" members to "interfere with the plaintiffs' traps and remove them from the water" on Sept. 20, 2020.
"The fisher defendants and the association acted in concert by operating their vessels on the water in a co-ordinated and dangerous manner, all with the intention ... of threatening the health and safety of the plaintiffs," the court document says.
The statement of claim also alleges that both the RCMP and the federal Fisheries Department failed in their duties to ensure the safety of Indigenous fishers.
It says the Mounties knew or ought to have known the Indigenous fishers were at risk, but the lawsuit says the RCMP failed "to act appropriately ... to deter or prevent the unlawful acts" or to deploy adequate resources to keep the peace.
The RCMP issued a brief statement, saying it had yet to receive a copy of the lawsuit. "We will review and consider any such claim once received," Cpl. Mark Skinner said in an email.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans said it could not comment on the lawsuit as it is before the courts.
Carole Saindon said in an email that the federal government is firmly committed to advancing reconciliation and implementing Indigenous Treaty rights through respectful, constructive dialogue.
She said First Nations affected by the Marshall decisions have a Supreme Court affirmed Treaty right to fish in pursuit of a moderate livelihood and the federal government is working in partnership to implement that right.
The band is seeking financial relief for "assault, intimidation and false imprisonment." It also wants compensation to cover the cost of replacing stolen or damaged traps and the lost opportunity to catch lobster for the food, social and ceremonial fishery.
The First Nation filed another lawsuit filed last month targeting the constitutionality of a Nova Scotia law that has prevented the band from selling lobster it caught in St. Marys Bay.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 30, 2021.
Michael MacDonald, The Canadian Press