Watering down the violence against Mi’kmaw fishermen ‘dehumanizes Native people’

Mi’kmaq lawyer Pamela Palmater and professor Candis Callison weigh in on the media’s coverage of the violence against Mi’kmaw people.

Violence against Mi’kmaw lobster fishers sparked national and even international media attention over the past weeks. Images of angry mobs attacking Mi’kmaw chiefs and fishermen, burning trucks and buildings sparked outrage. 

But while almost every media outlet jumped on covering the event, Mi’kmaq lawyer, and professor Pamela Palmater and University of British Columbia Associate Professor Candis Callison say the media hasn’t framed or defined the conflict fairly, with too much at risk to keep getting it wrong.

“You can have the same media outlet in one instance frame the situation well, and then the next news hour, they’re right back to framing it in a poor way,” says Palmater, whose family is from Eel River Bar First Nation. “People are portraying this as a dispute, as a two-party conflict with two sides, as about being about conservation and equality — when all of that misses the mark.” 

She calls coverage of the violence in Mi’kmaw territory “a mixed bag.”

Palmater holds the Chair in Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University where she is also a professor in the Department of Politics and Public Administration. 

Palmater says, unlike the way some media outlets covered unfolding events early on, the Mi’kmaw people aren’t in any dispute or war.

Lack of context

On Sept. 17, the Sipekne’katik First Nation launched a self-regulated fishery, asserting their inherent and constitutional treaty right to do so. In the days and weeks that followed, mobs of non-Indigenous fishermen began removing Mi’kmaw-owned traps and harassing Mi’kmaw people.

A vehicle was set on fire, masses of lobster destroyed, and a lobster pound burnt to the ground. Footage was taken by Mi’kmaw fishermen and the community and shared online. The shocking footage quickly spread across the country. 

Candis Callison, who is Tahltan, is an associate professor at the School of Journalism, Writing and Media and the Institute for Critical Indigenous Studies at UBC says mainstream media coverage lacked context.

“Most of the early stories lacked deep historical and economic context that could shed light on events like we’ve watched unfold in Mi’kmaq territory,” Callison wrote in an email. “For example, the treaties of 1752 and 1760/1761, and the Marshall Decision weren’t described or highlighted in much of the early reporting.”

Violence against Mi’kmaw fishermen
“Mi’kmaq communities are defending and exercising their treaty rights that are also reaffirmed in recent Supreme Court decisions,” Callison says. Photo provided by Candis Callison.

The lack of context and threat of fake news and misinformation is a reality all around the world, but it has serious consequences for Indigenous Peoples, Palmater says. 

“It’s a far more significant-obligation than I think most people realize the role of the media in educating Canadians,” she says. “Watering it down dehumanizes native people.”

Two sides to every story?

The ongoing violence against Mi’kmaw people, their treaties and rights, is not a “two-sided” story, it’s a classic example of a victim and a perpetrator, Palmater says. 

“This seems to be an age-old tendency of the media to always blame the victim or find some way that it has to be the Native’s fault,” she claims. “But when is violence and threatening lives ever justified?” 

Beyond the media, a major criticism that has come out of this conflict is how the RCMP has framed the situation, Palmater says. 

Public Information Officer with the Nova Scotia RCMP told CTV that the police “understand both sides,” that they “understand the passion” around what both sides “are bringing to the table,” and that they “respect that.”

It’s this exact framing that demonstrates bias and racism says Palmater. 

“They couldn’t have spoken their bias and racism any louder,” she says. “By understanding violence towards Native people, you’re accepting it, you’re condoning it, you’re complicit in it.

Palmater believes the violence that unfolded towards Mi’kmaw fishermen exercising their rights to fish in their waters is one-sided.

“Every single government official has said there is zero violence on the part of the Mi’kmaw — that all of the violence is one-sided and it’s coming from the Nova Scotia fishermen,” she says. “They’ve all confirmed the Mi’kmaw have a treaty right.”

In 1999 the Supreme Court of Canada confirmed that the Mi’kmaw have treaty rights to hunt, fish and gather, honouring the Peace and Friendship Treaties of 1752, 1760 and 1761. After running their own fishery on their territory, they were attacked by commercial fishers claiming they were concerned about conservation, Palmater says.

“Nothing that the Mi’kmaw is doing is jeopardizing conservation or the health of the fish stock,” Palmater says. “Their fishery amounts to a fraction of one percent of what’s actually fished in a multibillion-dollar industry. ”

“Equality,” Palmater says, “is another dog-whistle term for we just don’t want Native rights.” 

Getting it right

Outside of mainstream media, independent information and coverage has also gained attention across platforms like Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

A recent Facebook post showing the small percentage of Mi’kmaw traps started circulating on social media on Oct. 15. Soon after, APTN National News made their own post depicting the stark contrast between only 350 Mi’kmaw traps versus 390,000 commercial fishery traps. 

“If you wanted to really understand what was happening in Mi’kmaq territory, you would have had to turn to Indigenous media or social media where many Indigenous people — and in particular Mi’kmaw individuals — have been updating, challenging, and seeking to hold Nova Scotia communities, police, government, and all media accountable,” Callison says.

Violence against Mi’kmaw fishermen
Many Indigenous artists and allies shared photos and illustrations like this one across social media in a show of support. Artwork used with permission by Mi’kmaw artist Jordan Bennett.

Most national media initially ignored the events, “relying on the Canadian Press wire reports instead of sending their own journalists,” she says, 

She accredits independent journalists, APTN, and smaller digital news media sources who she says, “have been on the ground providing information about events as they unfold.” 

She mentioned Mi’kmaw journalist Maureen Googoo’s site Ku’ku’kwes News, who Callison says, “has been a vital source of information,” and whose followers quickly surged past 10,000 in several days.

It’s crucial to “get it right,” Palmater stresses, which she says along with adding historical context, involves naming violence for what it is. 

Appropriate coverage would be “non-native Nova Scotia fishermen have escalated their racism, violence, intimidation tactics, and criminality against Mi’kmaw and local businesses to stop them from fishing, destroy their property and prevent them from being able to sell their lobster and make a living,” she says bluntly.

Callison agrees. 

“The lack of clarity and context in media reporting on the lobster fishery — that should not only cite treaty rights and the Marshall decision — but also the political economy of its corporate players — alongside the anti-Indigenous violence, is truly dismaying,” she says.

Chehala Leonard is a reporter for IndigiNews covering the Okanagan. You can follow her work here or reach her via email: chehala@indiginews.com 


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