Whether the name is homard, lobster or, as Mi’kmaq call them, jakej, mention them in Atlantic Canada these days and you’re probably in for a tension-filled conversation on treaty rights and commercial fishery. The current focus on lobster fishing has its roots in the 1752 Treaty with Mi’kmaw people – a treaty right upheld in the 1999 Marshall decision of the Supreme Court of Canada. To more fully understand the challenges of interpreting the present-day actions in Nova Scotia concerning the lobster fishery dispute, we need to step back in at least two directions.
First, we need to know and understand the history of treaty making and the nature of treaty, particularly the 1752 through 1761 treaties entered into between Mi’kmaw people and the British colonial and home governments. Second, we need to understand the nature of covenant and the relationship that exists, or perhaps better put, the similarity that exists between covenant and treaty. In both of these we want to discuss the implications of the biblical admonition that our “yes” be “yes” and our “no” be “no.” For followers of Jesus, this goes to the heart of ensuring we do not engage in evil and deceptive practice.
Hunting & Fishing rights
Two critical passages form part of the 1752 treaty between the Mi’kmaq and the British Crown. After describing the parties to and nature of the treaty, the narrative provides the scope of time over which it is to be considered valid. It says, simply, “For themselves and their said Tribe their Heirs, and the Heirs of their Heirs forever.” It leaves little room for doubt as to the timeframe over which the treaty is to be kept. The second passage makes clear in Article four of the eight articles comprising the body of the treaty that, “It is agreed that the said Tribe of Indians shall not be hindered from, but have free liberty of Hunting & Fishing as usual: and that if they shall think a Truckhouse needful at the River Chibenaccadie or any other place of their resort, they shall have the same built and proper Merchandize lodged therein, to be Exchanged for what the Indians shall have to dispose of, and that in the mean time the said Indians shall have free liberty to bring for Sale to Halifax or any other Settlement within this Province, Skins, feathers, fowl, fish or any other thing they shall have to sell, where they shall have liberty to dispose thereof to the best Advantage.”
Taken together with the rest of the treaty, these two passages plainly indicate the intent and scope of the treaty and its implications for the lobster fishery – and any other fishery today – and it includes a right to fish for a livelihood, not simply subsistence. Clearly then, the treaty entered into by the Mi’kmaq and the British, “for them and their descendants,” has force majeure or principal weight today.
Three page turns. That is all it takes in your Bible before you encounter the word “covenant.” From that point in Genesis 6:18, the covenant-chain between God, his people and, ultimately, the rest of creation (Gen. 9), undergirds the entire biblical narrative, culminating in the consummative new covenant with all of creation through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ (Jer. 31:31; Luke 22:20; 1 Cor. 11:25; Heb. 9:15; 12:24). The biblical covenants initiated by God always entail both rights and responsibilities one to another, even in the case of these covenants having a greater party (God) and a lesser party. A relationship of mutual understanding, responsibility and reciprocity, is the foundation of a biblical covenant.
Not only did covenants signal mutual obligations, they also initiated and ritualized a familial bond between the parties. We see further examples of covenants made in the Bible between other parties (eg. Josh. 9:15), but for believers in Christ, we have the best possible example of a faithful covenant partner in the Creator himself. Those who are “in Christ” truly are “in”: we are brought “in” to a familial relationship with the Creator and “in” to a relationship which entails ongoing responsibilities to God, to the household of faith, and to the entire community of creation. To be in Christ is to be bound by a covenant, something our faith should require us to take very seriously.
While in contemporary times, the language of “covenant” is used much less, if at all, the nature of such agreements between two parties persists in treaties, and to a lesser extent, in modern day contracts. While all agreements may entail several parties with differing obligations, people rightly expect the parties to any agreement to uphold the terms of the relationship they describe. As with the breaking of a marital covenant, God is not only grieved, but can also be angered (Mal. 2:16) when one party breaches the agreement and creates conflict. God rightly expects his image-bearers to be people of our word: “let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one” (Matt 5:37).
Why does this matter in a discussion over the Nova Scotia fisheries disputes, or for that matter many of the disputes going on between Indigenous communities and the government in Canada? Because, of all people, followers of Jesus should understand the nature of treaties. We know from our own scriptures that covenants bind peoples together into kin relationships that entail ongoing responsibilities. And we ought to know that they endure – even for thousands of years.
We are all treaty people, bound to the agreements of long ago. Yet Canada – federally, provincially, and individually for settler Canadians – has been like Israel in the Old Testament, continually ignoring and violating the terms of the covenants with the Indigenous peoples of this land. And like Israel in the Old Testament, the violations of the covenant with God happened afresh in almost every generation. The fisheries dispute that has captured headlines, therefore, is nothing new; Canada is simply being alerted to what has been the norm for Mi’kmaq fishers – and being called to be people of their word.