Making First Nation Law: The Listuguj Mi’Gmaq Fishery
There are some events that come to define a community.
June 11, 1981 was the date of just such an event for the Listuguj Mi’gmaq Nation.
On that day, 500 police officers, fisheries officers and game wardens marched through the small community, beating and arresting residents and seizing boats and fishing nets under direct orders from the Quebec government.
What prompted such a show of violence? Salmon. The Listuguj had fished the Restigouche River for thousands of years. Yet in the 1970s and 1980s, attempted bans on commercial fishing to protect declining salmon stocks resulted in high tensions between native and non-native fishers, with the Listuguj continuing to fish to sustain their way of life and their community.
The Mi’gmaq people believe that they have “sacred duties of stewardship” over fish and other natural resources. As Jeff Basque, senior negotiator for Listuguj Mi’gmaq Government states, “These duties are the basis of Mi’gmaq identity, culture, and livelihood. It is not something we Mi’gmaq people chose or accepted; we are duty-bound. We fish because quite simply, it’s what we’ve done for millennia: we take what we need, no more, and govern our fishing to sustain our future generations.”
The attack on June 11, 1981, united the community to successfully organize and block a second raid on June 20. Knowing that confrontation and violence were not long-term solutions, the Council and Chief met with the government to resolve the issue. The Listuguj position was clear: they had an inherent right to fish that pre-dated the federal and provincial governments.
Listuguj_Mi’gmaq Fishery ReortAs the report Making First Nation Law: The Listuguj Mi’gmaq Fishery states, “With that meeting, the Listuguj Mi’gmaq people began a nation-rebuilding journey that would last more than a decade, culminating in 1993 when they established a framework – in the form of a Mi’gmaq law – for the effective exercise of their right not only to fish but to manage the resource on which they depend.”
The Listuguj knew they couldn’t just go out and fish. They understood the balance between exercising their inherent right and taking responsibility for protecting the salmon stocks for current and future generations. “Listuguj wanted to assert its jurisdiction over its most important resources,” said Satsan (Herb George), President of the NCFNG. “To be successful, they had to get their people together and get organized.”
Through extensive consultation with all community members, the Listuguj did get organized, and they developed a fishery management plan that ultimately became the Listuguj Mi’gmaq First Nation Law on Fisheries and Fishing. The law, which was passed in 1995, sets conservation targets, outlines rules about how fish are to be harvested and identifies areas that must be protected.
The legislation has been successful. The Listuguj people fish the river sustainably, enforcing the law when it is violated by either native or non-native fishers. The salmon are plentiful and well-managed (in 1995, the Atlantic Salmon Federation recognized the First Nation for overseeing the “best-managed river” in Quebec). And the community has benefitted economically, with dozens of community members employed to manage the fishery resource.
The law also has consequences beyond the fish and the river. The Listuguj Mi’gmaq government has entered into agreements with other levels of government regarding education, policing and forestry.
Many communities feel restricted in their right to manage their traditional resources, wondering how they might challenge laws imposed by federal or provincial governments. What the story of the Listuguj First Nation shows is the power to fight back by taking responsibility. As the report states, “The answer, it turned out, was [to fight] not [with] guns or litigation or marching in the streets. Ultimately, the Listuguj Mi’gmaq fought back with the tools of governance: by making credible law – Mi’gmaq law – and then backing it up with competent management and enforcement.”
The importance of law-making cannot be overstated. “Making good law and fairly enforcing it are among the most important activities any government ever undertakes,” remarks Stephen Cornell, faculty associate at the Native Nations Institute. “The Listuguj law on fisheries and fishing did more than just regulate a critical resource. It was a demonstration of the thoughtful, deliberate exercise of self-determination and self-government on the part of a First Nation. It’s a notable model, and the beneficiaries have included not only the Listuguj Mi’gmaq First Nation but the salmon, the Restigouche River and Canada as a whole.”
You can read the fascinating story of how the Listuguj people came together to assert their inherent right to fish the Restigouche River and reclaim their powers of law-making and enforcement in the research report Making First Nation Law: The Listuguj Mi’gmaq Fishery, co-written by the NCFNG and the Native Nations Institute based on interviews and extensive research. It’s a story, says Satsan, of “how to turn a crisis into a stepping stone to success.”
A copy of the report is available on our website. We also encourage you to check out our YouTube site, where you can watch an 11-minute video with footage from the community-defining events in June 1981 and interviews with community members reflecting on the significance of the Mi’gmaq law.