Nearly 25 years after the Supreme Court upheld the Indigenous treaty right to fish for a moderate livelihood, many contentious issues remain to be settled, including the definition of moderate livelihood.
That was one clear message from a two-day conference last week at Mount Allison University called “Rough Waters: The Legacy of the Marshall Decisions.”
Another clear message was that Donald Marshall Jr., the man at the centre of the legal struggle for recognition of treaty rights, paid a heavy price for his involvement.
The Mt. A. conference included Indigenous leaders and scholars, historians, lawyers and economists who gathered to discuss the implications of the landmark 1999 Supreme Court ruling that dismissed charges of illegal fishing against Marshall.
“J.R. wanted nothing to do with the Canadian legal system,” Jane McMillan, Chair of the Anthropology Department at St. Francis Xavier University told the conference.
She explained that Donald Marshall, whom she calls J.R., was more than fed up with Canadian justice after serving 11 years in Dorchester Penitentiary for a murder he did not commit. A 1989 Royal Commission report on his wrongful conviction exposed gross incompetence and systemic racism in the Nova Scotia legal system leading to fundamental reforms in the administration of justice.
“You can only imagine how crushing it must be to live the life of a wrongly convicted person,” McMillan said in an interview with Warktimes. “Taking 11 years for the Canadian justice system to believe his truth was an exhausting effort.”
McMillan and Marshall met in 1991 at the Misty Moon, then, a well-known night spot in Halifax. It was the beginning of their 13-year relationship during which they moved to Marshall’s home in Cape Breton where they began fishing for eels. Later, they transferred their nets to Pomquet Harbour in the Paq’tnkek Mi’kmaq territory on mainland Nova Scotia.
“The solace and the joy and the peace that he found in harvesting and being out on the water and being on the land and being with his friends and living in Mi’kmaq ways, was really regenerative, it was healing,” she says.
McMillan told the conference that for Marshall, earning a livelihood after years in prison, instilled a sense of purpose and self-worth.
“These were liberating times in so many ways,” she said, adding that eels are a traditional food, especially among Mi’kmaq elders, and Marshall was glad to share them whenever he could at weddings, funerals and other ceremonial occasions.
In her 2018 book, Truth and Conviction: Donald Marshall Jr. and the Mi’kmaw Quest for Justice, she describes what happened when a fisheries officer asked to see their eel fishing licences.
Donald said he was Mi’kmaw and did not need a licence to fish.
“‘Everyone needs a licence,” the officer replied.
“‘I don’t need a licence. I have the 1752 treaty,” Donald responded.
McMillan writes that Marshall believed his treaty rights were in full force because of a 1985 Supreme Court ruling that upheld a Mi’kmaq hunter’s rights under the Peace and Friendship Treaty of 1752. In addition, Section 35 of the 1982 Constitution Act recognizes and affirms existing aboriginal and treaty rights.
But authorities thought otherwise and laid charges for fishing with illegal gear, out of season and without a licence against both Marshall and McMillan. She said the charges against her were later dropped, but that it would take 2,222 days of on and off legal battles before the Supreme Court finally dismissed the case against Marshall and upheld the Mi’kmaq treaty right to hunt and fish for a “moderate livelihood.”
“It was a tremendous relief,” McMillan says, adding that Marshall recognized his case was a significant milestone for Indigenous people in Canada.
“His relief was abundantly clear, but then, with the outbreak of tensions and conflicts, he became very stressed,” she says, referring, for example, to violence between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people in Burnt Church and other places.
“He really wanted peace on the water, he wanted unity through the nation and he wanted leadership through the nation,” she adds.
“When people were ramming each other with boats and [there was] that violence, he was very, very concerned that somebody would die and he would somehow get the blame,” McMillan says.
“That was a giant concern of his.”
McMillan writes that the wrongful conviction and the official inquiry that followed as well as the protracted court battles over fishing rights took their toll on Donald Marshall’s health.
In 2002, he suffered a respiratory collapse and was told he would die without a double-lung transplant.
Although the transplant operation itself was successful, Marshall’s heavy regimen of anti-rejection drugs produced side effects.
“In some cases,” she writes, “the immunosuppressant medications can trigger psychiatric reactions. Normally soft spoken and fairly calm, Donald became extremely erratic and stressed.”
McMillan’s book tells how Marshall’s erratic behaviour led to more legal troubles and a period of confinement for psychiatric assessment in the East Coast Forensic Unit of the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility.
“I think a lot of indigenous people’s encounters with the law are a result of ongoing systemic discrimination, racism, surveillance by the justice system,” McMillan says.
“He was a well-known figure with a target basically on him and that leads to heightened conflict.”
Marshall’s health deteriorated in the following years because of complications from the double-lung transplant and, on August 6, 2009, he died at age 55.
Legacy of Marshall case
The Mt. A. conference heard a recorded video message from John G. Paul, executive director of the Atlantic Policy Congress of First Nations Chiefs highlighting some economic benefits of the Marshall ruling.
Paul said the economic value of the First Nations fishery had risen from $3 million before the Marshall ruling to $1.7 billion in 2019.
He also mentioned that seven Mi’kmaq communities in Atlantic Canada hold a 50% stake in Clearwater Seafoods, one of North America’s largest seafood companies.
Ken Coates, of the University of Saskatchewan, who has written extensively on the Marshall decision, also cited the Clearwater acquisition as one example of many successful Indigenous business partnerships across the country.
Coates said that although the Marshall decision was significant for recognizing Indigenous economic rights, it did not extend them beyond fishing and hunting to areas such as mining and forestry.
He mentioned that in Saskatchewan, municipalities with dwindling populations have successfully invited Indigenous First Nations to set up urban reserves helping to reverse the economic decline of dying towns and villages.
“Expanding First Nations’ rights benefits everybody,” Coates said, “both morally and economically.”
However, an economics paper presented by Barry Watson of the University of New Brunswick and co-authored by Stephen Law of Mount Allison and Burç Kayahan of Acadia University, found that the Marshall decision had only a modest effect on the overall economic well-being of First Nations communities in Atlantic Canada.
When the three economics professors studied Statistics Canada census data, they found mixed and limited results when it came to measuring improvements in income, unemployment rates, housing and levels of education.
Professor Patrick Augustine from the Faculty of Indigenous Knowledge, Education, Research and Applied Studies at the University of Prince Edward Island told the conference that any economic benefits are unevenly distributed on First Nations Reserves.
He said many Mi’Kmaq continue to live in poverty with young people resorting to drugs and alcohol to ease their pain.
“I don’t think [the] Marshall [decision] did us any favours,” he added.
The conference ended with a keynote address by Graydon Nicholas, former Lieutenant-Governor of New Brunswick and a Wolastoqey Elder, who serves as Chancellor and Chair in Native Studies at St. Thomas University.
Nicholas, who as a lawyer, was involved in several Indigenous treaty rights cases, emphasized that treaties are always “nation to nation” even though non-aboriginal politicians often have trouble understanding that.
He said a modern-day treaty would have to incorporate provisions of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as well as all 94 Calls to Action from Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
“It won’t be done overnight,” he predicted.