House Call with Carol Hughes

Work left undone stands in the way of reconciliation

Parliament recently held an emergency debate on the violence directed towards the Sipekne’katik First Nation and Indigenous Fishing Rights. Days later the community of Neskantaga First Nation, which has operated under a boil water advisory for 25 years, was evacuated when all water was cut off due to an oily substance coming through the pipes. In both instances, federal governments have allowed issues to simmer for decades instead of rolling up their sleeves and getting down to work. As with most items delayed, the costs only mount as time passes.

The do-nothing approach rarely works and hasn’t in either of these situations. In 1999 the Supreme Court ruled that Mi’kmaq fisherman Donald Marshall, who had been charged with catching and selling eels, held a treaty right to fish, hunt and gather in pursuit of a moderate livelihood. Twenty-one years later those rights are at the centre of a dangerous dispute about lobster fishing in St. Mary’s Bay.

While the Indigenous lobster fishery is new to the area, it isn’t particularly robust. There are a handful of boats as compared to the non-Native and commercial lobster fishers who account for over 99 percent of the fleet. Indigenous boats took to the water this year out of frustration with Department of Fisheries officials who took 18 years just to begin negotiations on what a regulated moderate livelihood fishery would be. That initial delay was compounded by a lack of action by the government in the years that followed.

Those are lost years for everyone and the frustrations that boiled over in October are a direct result of government reticence to be involved in the process. Involvement in this case should also have defined a role for non-Native fishers. Instead of leaving them to work it out for themselves, which did not go well at all, the government could have engaged with them to help frame regulations that allow all parties involved to benefit from a fishery that is focused on sustainability. This is not to excuse the actions of those who attacked Indigenous fishers and their property, only to suggest the path to a functional relationship was never fostered by the regulatory and senior partner, the government.

Now that we have arrived at an avoidable crisis point, New Democrats are calling on the federal government to clarify who is responsible for keeping fishers safe on the water before more violence happens. We are also calling for an agreement with Mi’kmaq communities to determine what a “moderate livelihood” means and enable DFO to protect the inherent rights of Mi’kmaq fishers. Without safeguards and knowledge, the issue will become worse.

That’s what has happened with the water system for the Neskantaga First Nation. Twenty-five years is a long wait time to address a boil water advisory. It’s no surprise the situation became worse. What’s sad is that the problem continues to fester despite the prime minister’s promise to fix First Nation’s drinking water issues by March of 2021. While the pandemic might explain a small adjustment to the timeline, it’s clear the target won’t be met for other reasons.

It’s certain that situations like we are witnessing in Neskantaga would never be allowed to happen in Toronto or Vancouver. Yet, a generation of children in First Nations communities had to grow up without clean water thanks to the negligence of government. These are disheartening developments for those who hope for progress in the relation between Canada and Indigenous communities. They breed disillusion and stand in the way of reconciliation.