by Paul Strome
Disputes between indigenous and non-indigenous interests over renewable resources and user conflicts have regrettably been part of the Canadian national fabric for centuries. The ongoing dispute between Mi’kmaq and non-Indigenous lobster fishers in southwest Nova Scotia is yet another page in an ongoing saga.
The historical and treaty-based facts underlying the Mi’kmaq lobster fishery dispute have been set out in an earlier post on this website. A very detailed explanation of the historical, economical, capitalistic and political factors at play in the dispute is given by Arthur Bull, current advisor to the World Forum of Fisher Peoples in the November edition of the Halifax Examiner. Many of these will sound familiar to students of renewable resource management. However there is one very important component of the ongoing dispute which has not been singled out for the attention it deserves and which is required for resolution of the dispute.
As with other indigenous peoples across Canada, the Mi’kmaq believe they have an inherent right to access and use natural resources. They believe concurrently that they have a responsibility to use those resources in a sustainable way. The Mi’kmaq way of resource management includes a spiritual element that ties together people, plants, animals, and the environment.
An example of this is the Unama’ki Institute of Natural Resources (UINR) programme of integrating scientific research with Mi’kmaq knowledge acquisition, utilization, and storage is a strength embodied in Etuaptmumk (Two-eyed Seeing). The concept of Etuaptmumk has been articulated and taught at Unama’ki (Cape Breton Island) and around the world for decades by Dr. Albert Marshall and Dr. Murdena Marshall of Eskasoni, Nova Scotia. Indigenous people in Canada have been integrating the best of Indigenous concepts with the best of western technology ever since Europeans arrived. This concept has been formalized by Mi’kmaq elder, Dr. Albert Marshall who has been teaching the concept of “Two-eyed Seeing”. An excellent recent presentation on Etuaptmumk can be viewed on YouTube.
Most non-indigenous commercial fishers do not feel the same way about natural resources as is evidenced by the amount they harvest and their attitude about doing so. They have voiced their opinion over and over again by saying “They are OUR lobster!” or, “They are OUR fish!” with unbridled explicatives and verve. It does not seem to matter what resource is under consideration (fish, lumber, coal, oil, gas, water, gold, iron, etc.) as they do not attach any spiritual beliefs to their actions or rationale. They are primarily concerned with making money and, in encouraging us to support them, they offer up the red herring that business will create yet more jobs. As viewed through Two-eyed seeing, this a very unintelligent way of living on the only planet we have.
There are many people in our society who do not want to accept the fact that Indigenous people have a special relationship with us because they have negotiated this special relationship through treaties. Treaty rights were/are negotiated on the basis of a nation-to-nation relationship and our highest courts have upheld that principle over and over again. When are the non-indigenous citizens of this country going to accept the fact that indigenous people have a special legal relationship with our federal government and those arrangements have to be honoured? Many citizens believe that the same regulations should apply to everyone equally but that is NOT the case with Indigenous people and the law. Just because some people believe we should all be regulated equally does not mean there is equity. This is the very basis for many ill feelings, confrontations and even riots. Some non-indigenous people do not respect the laws of the land concerning Indigenous people and the treaties.
Any robust understanding of law must include forgiveness, rehabilitation, and self-critical reflection. This, incidentally is how we will all benefit from the process of reconciliation between the imported cultures and the Indigenous ones; reconciliation and a deep respectful understanding of Indigenous traditions will enlarge both our perception of our situation as humans and the scope of our moral imaginations.
We need to articulate an “ethical system” that acknowledges “other than human” needs and interests in weighing our plans for the future. “Doing unto others” need not be limited to human ‘others.’ hence ‘ecological ethics’ is implicit in the concept of the ‘web of life. As elders we should be teaching the Indigenous concepts of environmental sustainability, harmony with others and integrating knowledge and compassion with everything we do. This goes against everything capitalistic, but we know that unchecked capitalism/greed is what will destroy humanity if we allow it. We need to learn how to live on this planet sustainably and in harmony.