On September 17, 1999, Canada's East Coast was shaken by a Supreme Court ruling that re-affirmed the rights of Mi'kmaq to fish for a living. It was the beginning of what is now known more commonly as the lobster wars between native and non-native fishers. This battle over fishing rights and conservation played out for weeks. It wasn't a new battle, but rather, a conflict centuries old about honoring an ancient agreement between two nations.
This feature documentary was broadcast on The World This Weekend on Sunday, December 26, 1999 and on The World at Six on January 3, 2000.
It all started peacefully. The Mi'kmaq moved into the Gaspé peninsula of Québec, northern and eastern New Brunswick and all of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, close to 11,000 years before the first European contact in the early 17th Century. They lived as hunters and gatherers, attuned to the shifting seasonal resources of the area, relying extensively on maritime resources.
The name Mi'kmaq came from the term nikmaq, a word in the native language meaning "my kin-friends." Eventually "nikmaq" was anglicized by the Europeans to Mic Mac.
The Mi'kmaq's first known contact with Europeans was in 1497 by John Cabot . By 1519 European fishers would routinely cross the ocean, so when Jacques Cartier sailed by in 1534 it was no surprise the Mi'kmaq waved furs on sticks to signal their eagerness to trade. Furs obtained from the Mi'kmaq created a new fashion in France and quickly spread through Europe. As the price of fur rose, the French quickly saw a chance to make money.
Organized fur trade began in 1581 and in 1604 Samuel de Champlain established the first French settlement in North America at the mouth of the St. Croix River, the current boundary between Maine and New Brunswick. The French stayed only one winter before moving the settlement to Nova Scotia's Annapolis Basin - now known as Port Royal. Intensive French colonization began soon after, with the Mi'kmaq becoming loyal allies and traders.
The introduction of European trade items led to a loss of much of the Mi'kmaq culture. The need to obtain furs for trade changed their traditional economic patterns and the acceptance of European foods and the introduction of alcohol caused epidemics to break out. But from the beginning of French settlement, conversion of the Mi'kmaq to Christianity remained a primary goal enthusiastically pursued by the priests.
Based on a strong connection with the Earth, Mi'kmaq religion believed in one Supreme being but included a number of lesser gods, like the hero known as Glooscap. Legend claims he was responsible for transforming the landscape and animals into their present forms. Europeans and their missionaries looked upon these ideas as worthless superstitions inspired by Satan.
The process of converting the Mi'kmaq to Catholicism took over 70 years. It was a period of increasing colonization, with the Mi'kmaq losing their connection to the land and becoming more involved in European customs. First the French established a permanent Mi'kmaq settlement and a formal chief. Then the missionaries introduced the European family structure with emphasis on male authority and female fidelity.
The Mi'kmaq adapted quickly to Catholicism and soon became important allies in battles with Britain. The British made their first attempt to remove the French from their territory in 1613 with the destruction of Port Royal. French prisoners were set adrift in small boats and then later rescued by the Mi'kmaq who fed them that winter and saved their lives. Already strongly attached to the French through religion and marriage, the incident served to convince the Mi'kmaq the British were enemies.
Territorial squabbles between these two European nations came to a temporary halt with the treaty of Utrecht in 1713. In it, the French agreed to reduce their presence to Prince Edward Island and Cape Breton Island. The Mi'kmaq continued to raid English ships and escalated warfare led to attempted genocide against the Mi'kmaq. Hostilities continued until French power in Atlantic Canada came to an end after the fall of Louisbourg in 1758. This forced the Mi'kmaq to make peace with the English.
The Mi'kmaq quickly established a series of treaties with the British Crown. The first was signed in 1725. The main theme of these treaties was an exchange of Mi'kmaq loyalty for a guarantee they would be able to hunt and fish on their territory.
The late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were difficult times for the Mi'kmaq. Increased numbers of English settlers poured into the area displacing natives from the most desirable locations. Decline of the fur trade and loss of traditional lands for hunting and fishing reduced many to starvation.
After confederation, when the crown colonies of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island became provinces of Canada, responsibility of the Mi'kmaq shifted to the federal government in Ottawa. The Canadian government introduced the Indian Act in 1876 with the intent to assimilate native Canadians. It served to suppress Mi'kmaq culture and keep them locked in a state of dependency on reserves, with little control over their own affairs.
"The main task of government was to do away with Indian culture," says Mi'kmaq historian Stephen Augustine. "They wanted to assimilate the Indians into mainstream society so they would not have an Indian problem - Indian lands would no longer be a problem."
Mi'kmaq children were educated in non-native schools and were taught to speak English. Slowly the Mi'kmaq way of life deteriorated as they stopped speaking the language and became separated from the land.
"When I walked into school I became totally different," Mi'kmaq elder Murdina Marshall remembers. "I became a Mi'kmaq when I came home, then the next morning I would go off to school again and become a different person-no Mi'kmaq."
Mi'kmaq culture was quietly passed on to new generations by elders - mainly through the telling of stories.
"I think a lot of our culture was stashed and kept secretly," Mi'kmaq musician Darrell Bernard says. "It was preserved among a few people."
Over 21,000 Mi'kmaq currently live in Atlantic Canada. One-third of the population is able to speak and/or write Mi'kmaq. Some elders like Murdina Marshall say the culture got a boost from an unlikely source: the Catholic Church. In the 1980s the very institution that had sought to subdue the culture, embraced it through Pope John Paul II.
"He really told the native people you shouldn't be ashamed of your culture," says Marshall. "You shouldn't disregard your ceremonies because of Christian teachings, you shouldn't let your ways and language be left at the door of the church."
"We are fighting a paper war and I'm in charge of that," Mi'kmaq elder Alex Denny says. "I'm a pain in the ass for everyone who has a look at me."
It's a war that started with the first arrival of European fishing boats, a battle passed on through the generations. Elders struggled to pass along the language, the customs and the culture that identified their people. Now the struggle is political and the fighting is done in the courtroom.
"The Mi'kmaq people are beginning to realize they can't continue to allow even the Supreme Court of Canada to decide on their fate." says Francis.
Increasing political awareness led to the formation of the Union of Nova Scotia Indians and the Union of New Brunswick Indians. Land claims were initially the most important issue, and now the key issue is the right to hunt and fish.
Alex Denny is a lead warrior in this new fight for the land. When he was a boy, his father used to tell him about the treaties and how he would some day be allowed to hunt and fish the land, like his ancestors.
In 1929, Mi'kmaq Grand Chief Gabriel Sylliboy was arrested for hunting out of season. He used only one defense: the treaties. He was convicted. Then in 1985, the Supreme Court of Canada affirmed James Simon from Nova Scotia had the right to hunt for food anywhere in Mi'kmaq country. Then came a court decision that recognized the Mi'kmaq right to fish for food. Next, the Marshall ruling said the treaties show the Mi'kmaq can earn a living from hunting and fishing as their ancestors did when they traded with the Europeans. The Mi'kmaq felt Canada finally recognized their nation's history.
"It's significant to me because it proves my father was right," says Denny.
"It instilled that our ancestors were not liars," says Murdina Marshall, granddaughter of Grand Chief Gabriel Sylliboy. "They had diplomatic things, and one of the diplomatic things they did was have treaties with Europeans and other nations."
As the battle wages on, younger Mi'kmaqs learn from the historic strides their people are making. In their attempt to reconnect with the land, Mi'kmaq leaders look ahead to the next battle, this time the right to use the forest as a resource.
"We are trying to establish a new relationship with the land," Stephen Augustine says. "I feel it is a determination in this new millennium that we can establish a new footing. As the Supreme Court judge said: Let's face it, we're here to stay."
Copyright © CBC 2006
Copyright © CBC 2006