HomeTop StoriesIndigenous fishermen left without shoes after officers seized boots

Indigenous fishermen left without shoes after officers seized boots

Two First Nations fishermen have said they were forced to walk without shoes in the dark and cold for hours after Canadian federal officers seized their boots and phones.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the allegations were “extremely disturbing” amid growing anger over the treatment of Mi’kmaw fishermen, whose ordeal has drawn comparisons to the infamous “starlight tours” in which police routinely target Indigenous people in bitter cold left behind.

Blaise Sylliboy of Eskasoni First Nation and Kevin Hartling of Membertou First Nation were arrested by federal fisheries officials on the night of March 26 while fishing for elvers in a southwestern Nova Scotia river.

The harvest season for glass eel is relatively short: it starts in March and usually lasts until May. The translucent fish is sought after in China and Japan, where they are farmed and harvested for food. The price is high: buyers paid $5,000 per kilo last year.

The Canadian Endangered Species Committee listed the species as “endangered” more than a decade ago, and the federal government has placed restrictions on harvesting. The total allowable catch for 2023 is 9,960 kg, unchanged over the past 18 years.

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Recently, however, the federal government has awarded indigenous communities a growing share of commercial quotas, an industry worth nearly $50 million. Last year, countries were allocated 14% of the commercial harvest.

But this year, Canada’s fisheries minister refused to open the spring glass eel fishery amid rising violence and poaching. Officers have arrested nearly 40 people since early March and seized vehicles, nets and weapons. In one case, officers were hit by a truck fleeing an inspection.

Indigenous nations have become increasingly frustrated that their treaty rights are not recognized by the federal government. Canada’s Supreme Court has previously ruled that Indigenous peoples have the right to harvest the land and water to obtain a “moderate subsistence” — a term the federal government has repeatedly failed to define over the years, leading to tense impasses. Both Sylliboy and Hartling claimed they have a treaty right to harvest the glass eel.

After the pair were arrested, officers confiscated their fishing boots – with their boots attached – and their cellphones, a “standard practice” in poaching investigations, the department said in a statement.

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Sylliboy told CBC News he was in so much pain from the handcuffs that he agreed to be dropped off at a gas station shortly after midnight.

But without a phone, he couldn’t ask friends or family for help.

Related: Darrell Night was left out in the cold and exposed the Canadian police’s deadly ‘starlight tours’

“I said [the officer], like, “Man, this is outrageous. You leave me without shoes,” Sylliboy said. “He said, ‘You know the consequences. But I said, ‘I know the consequences, but this is outrageous for human rights.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, sounds like your guys’ problem.’

The men were told to leave the gas station, so they walked along the road looking for a motel, their feet wrapped in duct tape and plastic bags.

“Sometimes when we were walking, I thought, ‘Man, if we stop, we’re going to die,’ because our feet were just soaked,” Hartling told CBC.

They said an ambulance driver stopped to let them use his phone but refused to pick them up. The pair eventually convinced a truck driver to take them to the town of Shelburne.

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Neither man has been formally charged.

Bob Gloade, the chief of Millbrook First Nation, called the incident “horrendous” and “inhumane” and said DFO should fire the officers involved.

“We need a full investigation to find out exactly what happened,” Trudeau said. “It is clearly important that there is enforcement of the illegal fishing laws, but there are processes and procedures that need to be followed when someone is apprehended.”

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