On his first fishing day, Christopher Wilmot caught one salmon. He picked up his net and then continued his day, fishing for lobster in the Miguasha area. “As a kid I learnt to fish with my father” he said. During the fishing season Christopher will repeat his routine without fear of losing his boat, his net or being charged for fishing illegally. Christopher, born in 1989, belongs to a new generation of fishermen, but he knows about the QPP and DFO raid in Listuguj.
Many people in Listuguj remember the raids. “They came three times,” recalls Rene “Cool” Martin. “The first time they came to order late Chief Alphonse Metallic – to stop us from fishing. The second time around 500 police came in, together with DFO, helicopters and boats to take our fishing gear.” The third time, Rene was driving in the community near 5 a.m. He saw the police squad on the bridge. “I blew the horn to wake up people. We organized and we drove them out.”
During these confrontations people were beaten, arrested, and equipment was destroyed or taken away. Rene was handcuffed and taken to New Carlisle’s jail with other Mi’gmaq. One of the charges was to resist authority. In fact, Rene and Listuguj resisted and Christopher Wilmot is grateful. “If nobody stood up we would not have this opportunity to fish today,” Wilmot said.
Resistance is nothing new to Indigenous Peoples and the Mi’gmaq were defending their Aboriginal rights against the diktat of Quebec government. “I remember when I was a kid, non-natives used to come to Listuguj to sell us salmon because we were not allowed to fish. So we had to buy. When we did the same – selling salmon to non-natives – the government didn’t like it.” affirms Gordon Isaac Sr. “There was a time when there were traps from Listuguj to near Maria, on both sides of the Bay. Natives and non-natives had traps, but when the government stopped the commercialization of fish, we continued fishing.”
It was during these times that Quebec set restrictive measures to dissuade Mi’gmaq from fishing. “We were fishing at night and Mi’gwite’tm nobody could smoke because the light of the cigarette would indicate our position to wardens patrolling the river and they would shoot bullets at us and come to destroy our nets” recalls Gordon who was charged 14 times for illegal fishing, fishing with a net, and fishing at night. “I beat all these charges because they don’t have the proof that I don’t have the right” he said proudly. These acts of resistance were strengthening in an unsuspected way. With unemployment rates high many people had to work in the USA often as ironworkers building skyscrapers and bridges. “We saw there how native people were fighting for their rights too and we got information, motivated and politicized” affirms Gordon.
In fact the 60’s and 70’s, the years preceding the raid, North America was witnessing the emergence of the “Red Power”, the militancy for Indigenous rights. When Listuguj was attacked, Native people from different nations showed support and even made the trip here. “ They give us confidence to fight, to resist, to put barricades and to be prepared” said Gordon.
“The lesson I learn from the raid of 1981 is to keep fishing, keep resisting because we have the right to fish,” said Rene. In fact, the long years of denying Mi’gmaq Aboriginal rights or Treaty Rights were challenged successfully many times at different levels in provincial, Canadian and international justice systems. In 1999, the Supreme Court’s Marshall decision recognized the traditional role of fishing in Mi’gmaq culture, and a right to sustain as well as earn a moderate living.
Today Listuguj manages a community owned fleet of fishing vessels creating jobs for natives and non-natives in the industry and generating millions in revenues.
“Two things happens since 1981” said Dr. Fred Metallic, Listuguj Natural Resources Director. “We strengthened our cultural revitalization and we got the recognitions of our political rights. Canada can’t discretionary interpret Indigenous rights and it can’t trample our rights without being accountable. Today we manage 10-12 vessels, with millions of pounds of fish allocations. We have in place a Rangers Program to prevent exploitation or outside interference.”
Nowadays, the Restigouche River is known as one of the bestmanaged salmon rivers in the country and agreements signed with Quebec are based on the Listuguj fisherman Management Plan. Elder Gordon Isaac adds, “Now we have our own Laws and our own wardens. Now we negotiate and sign agreements with governments, and they don’t dictate to us anymore. Now we can fish peacefully without feeling illegal and with no worries about what is going to happen to us, or to our equipment.”
Gordon doesn’t fish anymore. Today he stops at the wharf and talks to the fisherman. “Some of them keep the spirit of sharing and they give me a few salmon for my winter,” he said.