Conflicts over fish and other resources between the Mi’kmaq (Indigenous people) and colonial powers have a 400 year-long history in Nova Scotia, Canada. The Mi’kmaq Treaties – the solemn agreements of 1760/61 between colonisers and Mi’kmaq that set out long-standing promises, mutual obligations and benefits is one of several treaties acknowledging the rights of the L’stkuk community, known as Bear River First Nation, along with other Mi’kmaq communities in Atlantic Canada. They recognized that traditionally the Mi’kmaq have a long historical relationship with the natural world, premised on respect and self-sufficiency, expressed in the Mi’kmaq language as Netukulimk. While this along with other traditional management practices have ensured responsible fishing practices for centuries, these have been eroded by the granting of individual transferable fishing quotas (ITQs) by the Canadian government to the commercial fishing industry.
In the summer of 1993, the Mi’kmaq harvester Donald Marshall Jr. was charged for illegally selling eels, because he did not have a fishing license. This case was taken to the Court on the basis that Donald Marshall Jr.’s right to catch and sell fish was protected by the historic Mi’kmaq Treaties. In 1999, The Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the federal fisheries legislation was an unjustified infringement of the Mi’kmaq Treaties.
With this Supreme Court victory, the future of the Mi’kmaq fisheries looked promising. However, at the turn of the century, the Government of Canada responded by imposing its industrial fishing models, including the ITQ system, on the L’stkuk community. L’stkuk view these approaches as a modern form of colonial capitalism and as unsustainable. The ITQ system that transforms fish into private property runs against traditional Mi’kmaq values and as a result the L’sitkuk community is fighting back against the ITQ system and continues to pursue its own vision for a livelihood fishery that builds on the principles of Netukulimk.