Fisheries minister announces external review of case of Mi'kmaw fishermen

Two Mi'kmaw fishermen who were dropped off in the middle of nowhere in rural Nova Scotia in their sock feet on a cold and rainy March night, their cellphones seized by federal fisheries officers, are hopeful an external investigation will shed some light on the actions of the officers that night.

"Even though I went out and did what I did, still at the end of the day, it's wrong what happened to me," said Blaise Sylliboy of the Eskasoni First Nation in Cape Breton, one of the men detained for fishing for elvers at night along a river in Shelburne County early last spring.

Federal Fisheries Minister Diane Lebouthillier announced in a news release Monday morning that an external review process will look into the events of March 26, 2024.

"This external review must, and will, involve Indigenous leadership. This is why further engagement with Mi'kmaw communities will be critical before selecting the external review panel, which we expect to announce later this month," Lebouthillier said in the release.

"We must work together to eradicate systemic racism, wherever it exists."

Eskasoni Chief Leroy Denny said his community has plenty of young people looking for good work.
Eskasoni Chief Leroy Denny and Mi'kmaw chiefs say they have had multiple meetings with the federal fisheries minister to address what they say is systemic racism within the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. (Matthew Moore/CBC)

Sylliboy and Kevin Hartling of the Membertou First Nation in Cape Breton were detained by fisheries officers for fishing for baby eels after the closure of the season.

The men said they were stripped of their footwear and phones, put into a Department of Fisheries and Oceans vehicle and later dropped off at around 1 a.m. at a gas station more than five hours from their home communities.

After failed attempts to reach people by phone from the gas station, Sylliboy said they were eventually told by the clerk that they had to leave the store. They then made the decision to start walking.

"I couldn't stay there because it was so cold for me outside that store," he said. "My feet were soaking wet [and] they were getting more numb standing there than anything so I just had to start walking home."

After walking for several hours, they finally flagged down a truck whose driver agreed to take them to the town of Shelburne, Sylliboy said.

While visiting Dartmouth just days after the incident, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the reports about the incident were "very troubling" and warranted a "full investigation."

Monday's release said a committee made up of representatives from Indigenous Services of Canada, Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada, Public Safety Canada, and Fisheries and Oceans Canada will decide on the framework for the review and who will conduct it.

'We just want trust'

Eskasoni Chief Leroy Denny said it was initially shared with the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi'kmaw Chiefs that DFO would conduct an internal review.

"I was advised that this is what the chiefs didn't want because we felt we didn't have representation and we said we wanted an external review with Mi'kmaw representation involved," Denny said.

"We just want trust, you know, simple trust and faith in the system and the process. [It] couldn't be just one-sided."

The assembly also released a statement Monday, addressing the announcement of the external review.

"The problems run much deeper than the actions of a few individuals," the release said. "Our harvesters continue to experience issues on the waters and Canada needs to be better than that."

High demand for eel in Asia, and the collapse of eel fishing in Europe after those eels were declared critically endangered, has pushed the market value of elvers as high as $5,000 a kilogram.

That led to a surge of harvesting and prompted the Department of Fisheries and Oceans to cancel the fishery, which normally starts in late March, for the second year in a row.

The decision to cancel the season was heavily criticized by commercial fishermen, as well as by the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi'kmaw Chiefs, which put forward its own proposal to DFO to manage the fishery.

Following the external investigation, a detailed report with findings and recommendations will be made public, the news release said.