Active Listening: Indigenous and Non-Indigenous Perspectives on Canada’s Fisheries

Sonia - November 25, 2020

bc fishing industry Canadian fisheries Fishermen Community fishermen news Indigenous fishermen Non-Indigenous fishermen Nova Scotia skipper otto

When tensions in the Nova Scotia lobster fishery between Indigenous and non-Indigenous fishermen erupted into violence last month, we all watched with dismay and fear, concerned for the safety and livelihoods of the Mi’kmaq fishermen. Like you, we worried about how a peaceful resolution would be found and what this conflict meant for Indigenous/ non-Indigenous relations across the country. And while we don’t currently work with fishermen on the east coast, our deep roots in the west coast fishing industry mean we do have a unique perspective on fisheries management, access to fishing resources, and Indigenous/ non-Indigenous fishing relations. So, understandably, many of you have written to ask us to share our thoughts on the topic.

It goes without saying that fisheries management and Indigenous/non-Indigenous fishing politics are complicated. But a couple of things are crystal clear and I want to start by saying that Skipper Otto condemns the violence we witnessed in Nova Scotia. The violence and destruction of property that took place were inexcusable. Secondly, we recognize the rights of Indigenous people to fish for food, for ceremony, and for a livelihood.

Beyond those statements, I really struggled with what specifics to offer on the topic given my lack of connection to east coast fisheries. But saying nothing didn’t feel right either since I was well aware that similar tensions exist on the west coast, too. I decided that while I don’t have more to say about east coast fisheries, I do have access to a unique west coast perspective. It was clear to me that there are a lot of different, very passionate opinions on this coast and that I should start by listening respectfully to all perspectives and to researching facts.

With that in mind, I reached out to everyone I could think of who might have a unique perspective on the topic of Indigenous/non-Indigenous relations in fisheries in BC. And the response was overwhelming! Clearly, people wanted to be heard. And lots of people never get asked about these topics that are very personal to them, so they were eager to share their views. For over a month now, I’ve spent countless hours on the phone, sometimes over crackling satellite phones from fishing and hunting grounds, listening to stories from multi-generational Indigenous and non-Indigenous BC fishermen. I’ve heard from harvesters who’ve fished both coasts. I’ve listened to non-Indigenous fishing families and recent immigrants who raised their kids in remote, often predominantly Indigenous fishing villages. And I heard a broad spectrum of intensely personal stories, from heart-warming stories of collaboration, compassion, and powerful relationship-building, to embarrassing, shameful stories of racism, hate, spite, violence, and destruction. I wanted to hear more. So I reached out to academics, environmentalists, government officials, and RCMP officers all across the country. I read historical documents all the way back to the 1760s, Supreme Court rulings, segments of the Fisheries Act, the Indian Act, and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). I read protest letters and news editorials that represent perspectives on all sides. And I produced over 40 pages of notes from those calls and documents.

And while reading and listening, it became clear that I was uniquely privileged to have access to the raw, personal voices of the fishing community. In listening to those intimate, impassioned, and personal stories, the significance of active and respectful listening became even more clear to me. What if we all started by listening? And I mean truly open-minded listening. Then perhaps from that place of openness, we could find resolutions to our most painful conflicts.

The truth is, I don’t have the answers, but in the spirit of respect and active listening, I want to share with you the words of the fishing communities I heard from. They generously consented for me to share their perspectives with you. And I truly believe that sharing these insights is valuable. While I’ve attempted to capture what I heard in the voices of those who have spoken to me, I acknowledge in advance that these words do not represent the opinions of all fishermen and that, indeed, Indigenous and non-Indigenous fishermen represent an enormous diversity of perspectives. And I also acknowledge that I am writing from my own place of privilege.

And so, to the non-Indigenous fishermen I heard from: I want you to know, I hear you. You feel frustrated. You feel like nobody is listening to you. You feel vilified. You feel like you have worked so hard to try to make a life in the fishing industry. You spent a lot of money. You put in a lot of hard work. You took on a lot of risks. And you made your life plans based on what the rules were when you or your family got into fishing. And you had every reason to expect that you’d be able to build a fishing business around the way things were then. And then all of a sudden, without being told, things just started to change. Your access to the resource started being whittled away. Nobody consulted you. Nobody even informed you or compensated you in any way. I mean, you get it, Canada screwed over the Indigenous people and you’re not arguing about the fact that Canada has to make up for that. But you feel like it’s not justice if the government of Canada makes you personally pay the burden of reconciliation out of your back pocket. Sometimes you feel like the government isn’t telling you the whole truth either – they’ll say fishing is closed for conservation reasons and then you find out it’s open for recreational or food and ceremonial fishing. Well, which is it? Tell us straight. Fact is, you feel there should be one set of rules that’s fair for everybody, and you haven’t seen any alternatives that make sense or even seem possible. It’s always been about taking resources from someone and giving them to someone else without compensation or even a decent explanation, and now that so many licenses and quotas have ended up in the hands of big corporations and overseas, it pits you independent fishermen and Indigenous fishermen against each other. You shouldn’t be the ones bearing the brunt of this. And now you worry that you are going to lose your livelihood altogether. You worry you won’t be able to put food on the table. You worry you’ll lose your boat, your home. And maybe you’ve never earned a living any other way and you don’t know what else you would do if that happened. Sometimes it feels like your world is ending and you don’t know how you’ll go on if you lose your way of life.

And, to the Indigenous fishermen I heard from: I want you to know that I hear you. You feel frustrated. You feel like nobody ever listens to you. Ever since white settlers came to this country, all they’ve done is take away from you and try to shove you aside. For thousands of years, your ancestors fished these waters to feed their families, for ceremony, and for trade. And then the government of Canada said you weren’t allowed to do that anymore. They gave your land and your fishing rights away to white settlers. And you tried to follow the new rules but sometimes they made no sense and sometimes you resisted them, too. Your elders were taken away as children and put in residential schools because Canada said it would be better for them. And the trauma of that still resonates in communities today. The injustices done to your peoples are unthinkable and unforgivable. But still, you’re trying to move forward and get on with your lives in the here and now. You’re trying to fish and feed your families, get fish for your elders, maybe buy a decent truck, buy shoes for your nephew. Fact is, your people have fought in the Canadian courts for the right to do this and won, over and over again. Canada’s recognized that you have the right to fish for food, for ceremony, and for trade. And Canada has tried to come up with THEIR plans for how that should work, but most of their plans don’t really benefit you at all. Sure, maybe your band has a few more fishing licenses and quotas now, but you feel they mostly just lease them out to the highest bidder – often some big fish company or white fishermen. So, it doesn’t really help you at all. And mostly the government of Canada has just ignored the court rulings, so nobody really knows what’s supposed to happen. It breaks your heart when you go down to the docks in your community and see all those boats tied up. Nobody out fishing. Not like when you were a kid. Now young people are losing their connection to the water, to the fish. They’re not learning to fish as they used to when your parents were kids. Elders in your community can’t even get fish most years. And that’s just the biggest tragedy. Your elders took care of you when you were kids. And it’s supposed to be that you bring them fish now. And when you look into their eyes and tell them there’s no fish for them you feel like you’ve failed them. Well, all you know is that you have a right to fish. And you don’t owe it to Canada to tell them when you are fishing, where you are fishing, how much you are taking, and what you are using it for. That’s none of their business. You don’t have to report to them anymore. You’ll sort it out with your own people. And, heck, if your government can find a way to talk to the Canadian government and figure out something that works – great. But until they do that, you’re not just going to sit around in the meantime. You’re just going to get on with fishing.

So where does that leave us? What now? I have worries about trying to publicly discuss this topic. I worry that by listening to so many voices and trying to capture them here, I can be accused of creating a false equivalency between perspectives. I worry that people will think I am taking sides. I worry that it seems like I am afraid to take sides. I worry that I may come off as naïve or biased or self-important. I worry that I am not the right person to confront this. And I worry that I don’t have the answers to next steps or a clear path towards reconciliation.

But in spite of those worries, what is clear to me, is that even when it feels like there are no clear answers or it’s someone else’s problem, we owe it to ourselves and our communities not to shy away from these big underlying problems. Over the years at Skipper Otto, we have set ourselves up to confront many entrenched problems in the fishing industry. We have tried to act differently, tried to do better, and have tried to build a unique position in the industry that gives us the power to make a change. We know that as a community-supported fishery, our relationships are our greatest strength, and we are committed to learning, listening, and building bridges between everyone in our community.

And that’s where my hope comes from. For over 12 years, our members have joined us in doing things differently for people, communities, and ecosystems. They represent an enormously diverse set of perspectives from across the country, and yet, as members of the Skipper Otto community, they share a vision for reinventing unjust systems for a better way. Our members push us to be courageous and they give us the strength to keep looking for new answers. I am so grateful to be part of this community that reminds me every day that I’m not alone. And most importantly, I’m committed to continuing the important work of listening to all the voices in our community. Because ultimately, I believe that only by coming together do we have any chance of moving toward real understanding and reconciliation.

Sonia - November 25, 2020

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Active Listening: Indigenous and Non-Indigenous Perspectives on Canada’s Fisheries

Sonia - November 25, 2020

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