Ultra Vires


All Eyes on Mi’kma’ki

U of T Law students organized teach-in on the lobster fishery dispute

The latest lobster fishery dispute in Nova Scotia has generated discussions around Aboriginal rights and the role of policing in protecting Sipekne’katik fishermen and Indigenous communities overall. Indigenous Law Students’ Association (ILSA) and the Indigenous Initiatives Office (IIO) at the University of Toronto organized a teach-in about the conflict on October 22.  

The fishery disputes were rooted in the Supreme Court of Canada’s 1999 Marshall decision, which held that Mi’kmaq fishers are entitled to a “moderate livelihood”. The Court did not define the term. 

In September this year, members of the Sipekne’katik First Nation, a Mi’kmaq band, opened their first commercial fishery. Non-Indigenous fisheries believed that its operation violated federally regulated commercial season. Vandalism and violence ensued against Indigenous fisherpeople. The RCMP failed to protect them from the mob. 

Against the backdrop of these events, Elder Constance Simmonds opened the teach-in with a ceremony over Zoom and shared her wisdom and teachings. Angela D’Elia Decembrini, lawyer at First Peoples Law Corporation and legal counsel for Sipekne’katik First Nation, gave attendees the background of the conflict. Faculty of Law Professor Kent Roach discussed the relationship between the RCMP and Indigenous communities.  

The teach-in was well-attended with roughly 100 participants in real time. The recording of the event on the IIO YouTube page has generated over 280 views at time of writing.  

Ultra Vires interviewed the student organizers of the teach-in: Karlie Nordstrom (2L), Co-President of ILSA, Lavalee Forbes (2L), and Tomas Jirousek (1L), all members of ILSA. 

A poster of the teach-in. Credit: ILSA

Ultra Vires (UV): What inspired you to organize this event? When did the idea first come up?  

Karlie Nordstrom (KN): Tomas brought the idea of a letter writing event to ILSA and based on the success of past teach-ins hosted by ILSA, we decided to pair the letter writing with an education piece as well.  

Tomas Jirousek (TJ): We figured that the pairing would generate the most potent support of the Mi’kmaq, as we could achieve the dual tasks of educating future lawyers on the history of the impact while also showing support from the student community for the Mi’kmaq fishers.  

UV: How did the panel come together? What perspectives were you looking for when you invited the speakers?  

Lavalee Forbes (LF): A group of ILSA members met over Zoom to figure out what kind of event we wanted to put together. Amanda Carling joined the Zoom call shortly after and offered to reach out to Angela D’Elia Decembrini. We thought she would be able to give a good overview of the legal issues involved in the fisheries dispute because she was working on the case.  

Given Professor Kent Roach’s knowledge of criminal law, and in particular, policing, we decided to ask him to speak on the role of the RCMP in the fisheries dispute.  

KN: I had come across a really great article by Angela D’Elia when doing my own research on the topic, and we were so excited when Amanda was able to secure her as a speaker. Kent Roach has been a great ally to Indigenous communities and he also seemed like a great fit.  

Finally, we were happy to have Lava and Elder Constance join the event and offer their insights as Indigenous women. We’re hoping to keep the conversation going as we move through the year and have been chatting about a follow-up event focused on the voices of community members. 

UV: What was your most important take-away from the teach-in from the speakers?  

KN: It was great to have such a multi-faceted discussion of this issue. It was especially great to hear from Elder Constance and Lava – they did a great job of reminding our attendees that these issues aren’t just another abstract concept that form a part of our legal education. The continued violence faced by Indigenous communities across Turtle Island is the result of the racism and colonialism that is so deeply embedded in the very foundations of this country. It’s important for us not just as law students, but as human beings, to recognize this and to do the work to dismantle these systems. 

TJ: I thought it was brilliant to highlight the importance of a variety of different experiences. Both Lava and Elder Constance were able to offer insight into the Indigenous perspective on the conflict, while Professor Roach offered a more in-depth discussion of the legal history of the conflict. I think this approach reflects the importance of highlighting both the common law perspective as well as the Indigenous legal approach to these issues.  

UV: Were there any behind-the-scenes anecdotes while putting together the event or obstacles you had not expected?  

KN: I still can’t believe how smoothly this event came together. Tomas brought up the idea on Sunday night and we held the event on Thursday. It meant a lot to see so many people come together to make it happen.  

TJ: I think the event speaks to the versatility and strength of our organizing team. The IIO and ILSA had a limited amount of time to make this event happen, with the added stress of organizing over Zoom, but we managed to pull together an event which appropriately honored and supported the Mi’kmaq fisherpeople. 

UV: What type of support have you received from the law school in running this event? Do you think the school has done a good job in supporting students’ activism on social issues?  

LF: Professor Kent Roach and Indigenous Initiatives Officer Amanda Carling were both very involved with the event, and some of our other professors and school staff members attended the event. Many students attended and were very supportive. However, I don’t think Dean Iacobucci attended the event, nor has he shown any support for this particular issue.

KN: Amanda Carling is such an incredible support for these events and for Indigenous law students in general. It was also great to see some allyship from speakers like Angela and Kent and from all our attendees. I also echo Lava’s observation that the absence of the Dean and other members of the law school administration was, as always, disappointing. 

UV: What is  your advice for someone organizing a teach-in at the law school?  

LF: Ensure that no one is able to Zoom bomb the event, since Toronto has the largest urban population in Canada and members of the Toronto community have been known to join events and disrupt them. You can prevent this by limiting access to the Zoom link and making registration mandatory.  

Last year, during the Wet’suwet’en teach-in, some people were verbally abusive to ILSA over Facebook as well. If you do decide to make a Facebook event for a teach-in, it helps to limit who can comment on the event page. 

TJ: Make sure there is an ‘actionable’ component. Plenty of students will learn new facts which might cause them to want to take action on a particular issue. It’s  important to have some sort of productive outlet for allies to have a forum to channel their creative talent and emotions into. 

UV: Only around two percent of U of T law students self-identify as Indigenous or Aboriginal. What are some good ways to be an ally to the Mi’kmaq People or Indigenous communities in general? 

LF: Show up to teach-ins, get informed through reading academic articles, follow reliable news stories (be careful to watch out for bias), don’t let racist comments go if you hear a friend, acquaintance or family member say them, examine and self-reflect on your own role in colonialism.

KN: We had a great turnout for this event, but there are still a lot of students that do not attend events put on by the law school’s various equity-facing groups, including ILSA. I think a lot of folks feel that these issues just aren’t their problem. But they are your problem – you live on Indigenous land and benefit from the oppression of racialized and otherwise marginalized folks every day. Showing up to these events is a great start – listen, learn, and offer tangible support in any way you can. Don’t rely on marginalized folks to do the work for you. 

TJ: People should be showing up for the events for sure, but you can also get involved in activities like legal observing with the Movement Defense Committee. There are plenty of events organized by Indigenous advocates which require the skills that law students possess, and as a legal observer you can help provide a safe platform for Indigenous people to share their stories and experiences.  

Additional resources for supporting Mi’kmaq treaty rights:

A summary of ways to support livelihood fisheries
ILSA letter-writing template

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