The relationship between the Mi’kmaw People and the fisheries: A Historical Perspective Part VI

ASHLEY SUTHERLAND ARCHIVIST, COLCHESTER HISTOREUM For details on citations please visit our website https://



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As an Archivist and a Historian, I would like to raise awareness of the historical context of Mi’kmaw fisheries in Mi’kma’ki. I hope this will create a better understanding of Treaties, and the relationship between Indigenous peoples and Settlers. The following is a narrative that has been constructed from primary and secondary written historical sources. It should be noted that some of these sources are colonial in nature and offer only one (sometimes biased) perspective that is not told directly from the perspective of the Mi’kmaw people. That said, written documentation, despite their biases, can be sources of valuable information, particularly with regards to Mi’kmawsettler relations. They can also offer insight on Mi’kmaw cultural landscapes and how these changed drastically following the settlement of European colonies. One way in which the Mi’kmaq maintained autonomy and exercised their treaty rights was their participation in the commercial fishery, post-european contact. We tend to overlook historic Mi’kmaq engagement with commercial fisheries. Historian Janet Chute notes: “Mi’kmaq involvement in commercial enterprises other than the fur trade has been virtually ignored by ethno historians.” One example Chute gives is a salmon trade that was set up at La Have in the seventeenth century by Isaac de Razilly, and other trade operations that had been established throughout by Nicholas Denys. Chute asserts that: “Fishing provided the Mi’kmaq with a range of opportunities. Whether for subsistence or exchange, riverine fishing remained a pursuit that employed wholly Indigenous materials and did not depend for its continuation on articles obtained through European-controlled trade. Unlike hunting and trapping, it provided returns with little loss of autonomy.” To quote the words of Joan Dawson: “Nova Scotia has not been kind to its rivers, and environmental damage is not a recent phenomenon. The first inhabitants of Nova Scotia lived in equilibrium with the waters that provided them with food, dwelling sites, and transportation, enjoying their benefits for thousands of years. They took from the rivers no more than their relatively small numbers needed for survival, and assumed that they would remain unchanged forever.” But colonization and settlement has changed the traditional Mi’kmaw way of life. As William Wicken notes: “Europeans did not change the form in which the Mi’kmaq viewed the world though they did upset the balance within it.” Treaty rights ensure that the Mi’kmaw people can maintain aspects of their traditional culture and sell commercially to maintain self-sufficiency. The right to fish for both subsistence and commercial purposes is a treaty right that has been reaffirmed in the Supreme Court of Canada. Furthermore, these rights have never been surrendered. To understand how and why it is a treaty right, it is crucial to understand the historical background of the relationship between the Mi’kmaw people, the land and fishery, Settlers, and the government. We must understand that the Mi’kmaq have always accessed the waterways and the resources they offer. It is their inherent right that they continue to hold today. Racism — both systemic and otherwise – has indeed created barriers for Mi’kmaq in pursuit of wage labour or monetary gain. But the reality is that their right to fish and sell commercially is not new. And it is our duty as Settlers to acknowledge and uphold the Peace and Friendship Treaties. After all, it would not have been possible without those treaties and the generosity of the Mi’kmaq for anyone’s ancestors to settle in Nova Scotia (Mi’kma’ki). Descendants of those early settlers would not be here today without those treaties.