‘Extremely troubling’: Mi’kmaq protest Trudeau event after alleged fisher detentions

By Lyndsay Armstrong, The Canadian Press

HALIFAX — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Tuesday his government will investigate “extremely troubling” allegations that two Indigenous fishermen in Nova Scotia were dumped by federal fisheries officers hours from home without footwear or phones.

At an announcement in Halifax, Trudeau had to speak over a din as a group of about 25 protesters beat a traditional drum and chanted “honour treaty rights.”

Protester Hayley Ward said in an interview that two Mi’kmaq men in their 20s from Cape Breton were fishing last week for baby eels, known as elvers, when they were apprehended by fisheries officers. She said they were then dropped off at a remote gas station without their phones or boots and told, “You guys have to figure out a way to get home.”

“So (DFO) were doing starlight tours, essentially,” Ward said in reference to a practice where police have taken vulnerable Indigenous people to a secluded location and left them to find their way home, sometimes in freezing conditions.

In a Facebook post dated March 27, Blaise Sylliboy gave details of what he called “the craziest life experience.”

Sylliboy said he and a friend ended up walking for seven hours in pitch black with “socks and bags on our feet,” from Shelburne, N.S., “halfway to Liverpool, N.S.” The two towns are about 70 kilometres apart.

“I was just in disbelief,” he wrote. “Our feet were ice cold and numb and I was tired and scared with my friend.” He included photos of his blistered feet with the post.

Trudeau said Fisheries Minister Diane Lebouthillier is looking into the allegations directly.

“We need a complete investigation to find out exactly what happened,” he said. “Obviously, it’s important that there be enforcement of illegal fishing laws, but there are processes and procedures that need to be followed when someone is apprehended, and we need an investigation to make sure that there are proper lessons learned from this.”

Ottawa closed the 2024 elver fishery on March 11 because of violence and intimidation on the water last year in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, but the Mi’kmaq maintain they have a treaty right to fish for the tiny, translucent eels. They are typically sold live to aquaculture operations in China and Japan, where they are grown for food, and in 2022 prices reached as high as $5,000 per kilogram.

In a statement, the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq Chiefs said they had met and discussed the incident.

“The way these individuals were treated was absolutely unacceptable and inhumane,” said Chief Wilbert Marshall, co-lead of fisheries for the assembly. He said such “appalling interactions” would “not be allowed to continue.”

The assembly is demanding that the officers involved be immediately terminated from their positions.

“Canada speaks of reconciliation and then employs people who treat our people like this,” Marshall said. “These actions did not have anyone’s safety in mind.”

The chiefs also called for an emergency meeting with Lebouthillier. 

A spokesperson for the federal Fisheries Department said in an emailed statement that fishery officers arrested and released two people on March 26 for infractions related to elver fishing in Shelburne County.

“Fishery officers engaged the RCMP to provide assistance to track down a vehicle suspected to be associated with the individuals,” the spokesperson said. 

“It is standard practice for fishery officers to seize fishing gear related to the commission of alleged infractions, including hip waders, fyke nets and dip nets.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 2, 2024.

— With files from Keith Doucette

Lyndsay Armstrong, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version misspelled the first name of Hayley Ward.

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