U.N. committee to consider racism complaint of N.S. Mi'kmaq fishers against Ottawa

HALIFAX — A United Nations committee on racial discrimination is asking the federal government to respond to allegations it committed racist actions in its treatment of Mi'kmaq lobster fishers in Nova Scotia.

The April 30 letter of notice from the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination asks Leslie Norton, Canada's permanent representative to the U.N., to respond to allegations by Sipekne'katik First Nation by July 14.

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The First Nation has argued that it has the right to fish for a "moderate livelihood" when and where they wish, based on a decision from the country's Supreme Court.

The court later clarified that ruling to say Ottawa could regulate the treaty right for conservation and other purposes.

Members of the Sipekne'katik band encountered violence from non-Indigenous residents last fall, resulting in the destruction of a lobster pound and the burning of a band member's van as the First Nation conducted a fishery outside of the federally regulated season in southwestern Nova Scotia.

The federal minister has repeatedly noted the principle of closed seasons exists for conservation purposes and has said her department will negotiate the distribution of commercial licences, which occur within existing seasons, tailored to the needs of each First Nation.

Talks with the band broke down earlier this year, and Sipekne'katik says it is planning to resume a self-regulated lobster fishery outside of federal seasons.

However, the United Nations committee says it is considering allegations the RCMP and the federal Fisheries Department "failed to take appropriate measures to prevent these acts of violence and to protect the fishers and their properties from being vandalized," and that treaty rights weren't respected last year.

"The committee is concerned about allegations of lack of response by the state party authorities to prevent and to investigate the allegations of racist hate speech and incitement of violence online as well as acts of violence and intimidation against Mi’kmaq peoples by private actors," says the letter of notice to the Canadian representative.

The committee's letter noted its prior recommendations requesting governments that have signed the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination "take steps to prevent racist hate crimes against all ethnic and minority groups, migrants and Indigenous peoples."

The letter asks Canada to respond to the allegations and indicate what actions have already been taken to deal with allegations of racism.

The notice is signed by Yanduan Li, the chair of the committee and a representative of China.

The First Nation's leader, Chief Mike Sack, said in a news release Sunday that it intends to proceed with a lobster fishery beginning in June, despite the lack of an agreement with the federal Fisheries Department.

Sack has said he will request United Nations peacekeepers if federal enforcement officers remove his band's lobster fishing gear from the fishing area in southwest Nova Scotia.

He said the involvement of the racial discrimination committee is encouraging.

"Being recognized by a body that represents marginalized people experiencing the destructive and intergenerational effects of systemic racism is a new milestone in our community’s efforts to overcome poverty and oppression," said Sack in the release.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 9, 2021.

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