NationTalk: Saltwire – MEMBERTOU, N.S. — The Atlantic Policy Congress of First Nations Chiefs’ fisheries conference is underway at the Membertou Trade and Convention Centre to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Donald Marshall decision.
The landmark ruling affirmed the treaty rights of First Nations for fishing, hunting and gathering in pursuit of a moderate livelihood. The conference brought together leaders and managers in fisheries from across Atlantic Canada, Quebec and Maine to discuss the future of Indigenous fisheries and the impact of the Marshall decision on First Nations communities.
Moderated by Melissa Nevin, director of fisheries at APC, a panel of Indigenous fishery experts and academics delved into the effects of the Marshall decision on Indigenous rights and fisheries management.
Angie Gillis, executive director of the Confederacy of Mainland Mi’kmaq, shared her insights alongside Karen Somerville, a culture and language teacher from Esgenoopetitj First Nation, Clark Dedam, director of fisheries for Esgenoopetitj, Fred Metallic, director of natural resources for Listiguj, and Dr. L. Jane McMillan, professor and chair of the Department of Anthropology at St. Francis Xavier University.
McMillan is an anthropology professor and defendant in the Marshall decision who authored the book “Truth and Conviction: Donald Marshall Jr. and the Mi’kmaw Quest for Justice” and is also the former partner of Donald Marshall Jr.
Reflecting on the impact of the Marshall decision, McMillan says the decision was transformational to a nation.
“It was a transformational moment, from the moment I met Junior Marshall, he said he wanted to go home, and he wanted to fish eels,” said McMillan. “The Marshall decision, for me, represents an incredible determination of one man and ultimately an entire nation to come together in defence of the Peace and Friendship Treaties.”
Metallic draws parallels from his own story to Marshall’s and says the Marshall decision was a major inspiration on his path, fighting for rights.
“Donald Marshall, to me, was an inspiration. He was arrested for crimes he didn’t commit, spent time in jail, came out, and went fishing,” said Metallic. “As a fisherman who grew up on the river, fishing salmon, fishing commercially, advocating for recognition of our laws to fish. I took inspiration from Marshall, inspiration to challenge the system.”
Somerville moved back to her community around the time of the Marshall decision. She says the community’s delight was palpable, if short-lived.
“The whole community was elated. People were driving around the community, honking their horns, everybody waving their arms in the air,” said Somerville. “That elation lasted about three days before we really had to prepare, and at that point, it was for our own safety.”
The Supreme Court had decided, but that didn’t change that many on the water didn’t agree with the outcome. Somerville says fishers faced harassment on the water, even with their rights affirmed.
“Their traps were being cut, they were being bullied on the water, they were being pushed, not wanted,” she said. “How could they not understand that this was a Supreme Court decision? Our elation turned into fear, but the determination was there; we got a taste of something that was once ours, and now we were allowed to practice it again.”
Rights and responsibilities
The conference also featured a poignant talk from elder Albert Marshall, a respected voice from the Mi’kmaw nation. Marshall is a survivor of the Shubenacadie Indian Residential School and a strong advocate for “etuaptmumk/two-eyed seeing,” a principle he coined for integrating Indigenous and Western knowledge.
In his address, Marshall emphasized the importance of collective responsibility and learning from the past. Saying the conversation must switch from rights to responsibilities.
“As we are moving forward together, we will allow the mistakes to guide us, to ensure that we don’t make the same mistakes because those mistakes don’t serve anyone or anything,” said Marshall. “Let’s stop talking about rights, and let’s have an honest conversation on how we can improve on our responsibilities together.”
Mitchell Ferguson is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter for the Cape Breton Post covering Indigenous Affairs. Follow him on X (Twitter) @CBPostMitchell.
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