The Conversation: Chief Mike Sack

Chief Mike Sack. Photo: Steve Smith/VisionFire

Nova Scotia’s legacy of injustice, why the fishery fight matters, the power of community, and how to be an ally

For most policymakers, topics like the fishery are abstract policy issues. 

For Sipekne’katik Chief Mike Sack, born and raised in the central Nova Scotia First Nation, the issues are connected to his working-class roots. Among his blue collar experience (which includes running his father’s construction company), he’s worked as a fisherman on the waters of St. Mary’s Bay. 

Combine that with his decade experience as counsel and now chief, and he has a unique perspective on the issues around reconciliation and First Nations rights that face Nova Scotia today, a perspective rooted in hands-on experience.

Chief Sack on today’s critical issues: “All of our communities are different … different sizes, structures, and dynamics. In my community, housing is a big thing because we lack employment and poverty to get people out of social assistance and into the workforce. There’s a limited number of jobs out there. As we have all seen in the past year, racism is alive and well. That’s a very different dynamic you face; you wouldn’t think we’d have to face it all day and night.”

Experiencing racism: “I remember playing hockey back when I was young. You face it, then they name call and such … Even today, when we walk into a local village like Shubenacadie, we’re still treated differently. We’ve been there; I’m sure some businesses wouldn’t survive if it weren’t for our population in the area, but we’re still treated differently in our neighbourhood community. I guess I faced enough dynamics in my life that I feel sorry for that person … shame on them that they can’t get past it. We’re all people, we come from different places, and we’re all human beings.”

A legacy of injustice: “It was very disappointing last fall to see that they can do whatever they want if enough people get together. I’ve expressed my concerns to people in policing … There were mobs of people, and there are still hundreds of people that didn’t face charges who committed crimes. My fear for this year is that if we go fishing, there will be a bunch of DFO, and they’re going to charge our people. If we had hundreds of people down there surrounding 30 commercial fishers, there would be helicopters coming in with the police. There would be army tanks coming in. (On the day a mob besieged a First Nations-friendly fish plant) there were six to eight police officers in the area … And you look across the country, it’s all the same.”

Dealing with the double standard: “It’s very frustrating; I try to do my best to voice those concerns and have people recognize what’s going on. But at the same time, it goes on social media, it’s a hot topic for a minute, then it’s gone, and nothing changes. Even when I had a chance to question (Prime Minister Justin) Trudeau on something, he said he wanted answers from the police, but that was just lip service because nothing happened.”

Understanding the fishery: “The biggest thing is just knowing the industry. When I was in my mid-20s to mid-30s, I used to buy and sell seafood. You get to know a lot of people. I know that there’s a lot of stuff in the commercial industry that nobody talks about, and that’s what’s frustrating for us because they don’t want numbers, but there are so many lobsters being caught and sold for cash. Back in 1999, when I was fishing, local people told me that the biggest problem they had with us fishing there was that there was so much DFO in the area, they couldn’t do their fishing at that time of year.”

The government’s failure to resolve the fishery issue: “It’s all part of keeping our people down and keeping them in poverty and not wanting them to rise. The same thing goes for the residential school — all of those horrible things that happened … There’s no difference; they have enough authority to change it so our people could fish and sell seafood at a market value, but they won’t do that, so it’s no difference. They’re keeping people in poverty to this day.”

Chief Mike Sack and the team from the Sipekne’katik band office. Photo: Steve Smith/Visionfire

Resolving the issue: In the commercial fishery “it’s all about who can catch the most, who can buy the biggest boat, the biggest house, and it’s all this stuff. We’re trying to fish to bring people out of poverty, to put food on people’s tables to give kids a better future. There’s a whole difference here. I would like to see the government honour the treaties, respect those, have our people fish, earn a living with them, and provide for themselves.”

Residential school apologies: “When a politician apologizes, it’s a nice gesture, but it’s a political thing to do. Without change, that apology means nothing. The government’s always talking about changing, rights, reconciliation, all this stuff, but at the same time, nothing happens. I blame it on a numbers game … The Mi’kmaq of Nova Scotia are under two per cent of the population. So do you think the government’s going to be in a rush to do anything?”

The need to understand: “If people were educated, there wouldn’t be that resentment that you see people thinking, ‘they’re trying to get everything for free.’ It’s not the case: we were put into the system. People struggle every day with it. Lack of housing, people can’t afford to buy healthy food now because the prices went up and the social welfare is so low. It will take a lot of time, but I think that they need to stop the lip service and start doing something. There’s a lot of avenues that our communities are growing. We have a lot of needs that are not met and don’t go anywhere. That’s the frustrating part for me is that we express our concerns, we try to work with the government, (and) every time that we do, there’s mistrust.” 

How you can help: “It’s about holding people and the government accountable … There are so many needs and wants, but there are minority groups that are being misled. What you can do to support is take the time and familiarize yourself with the topic. Sit down at night, look it up like you have to read stuff, and at least get your own opinion before you go online or dispute it. It’s that system where people talk about the genocide; it was set up to dissolve our people. It’s more about conveying support, making people aware of if they see a protest, taking the protest to the bridge, and blocking the bridge. It’s not because we’re trying to ruin anyone’s day or travel times that day; they’re just trying to bring awareness to something obtained, or somebody can be going through.” 

Five years from now: “I hope that we have the same respect that other political parties have, and, and at a table, we can be a part of the process moving forward. I hope that there’s a lot more employment in my community, there’s a lot more housing. I hope for those communities out there with no drinking water that they have drinking water. I hope there’s more of a level playing field. Other people can’t go down to the neighbouring community and grab a job. I want them to know that there’s a whole bigger world out there for our kids and future. The sky’s the limit.” 

Off duty: I love comedy … We could be all together in a wake when somebody passes. You’re sitting around, talking about the good times, you’re laughing, and that’s living a positive life. I like to get my four-wheeler up in the woods because your phone can’t ring, or I go boating to relax. I love being outside. Nature calms you.” 

Writer’s Note: Shortly after this interview in August, Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) officers arrested Chief Mike Sack for promoting an “unauthorized and illegal” fishery. After questioning at DFO’s Meteghan office, they released Sack. He doesn’t know if he will face charges. 

“I did ask, like, ‘Why would you arrest me? I haven’t done anything here,’” Sack says. “It just seems to be all scare tactics for the fisheries, to try to stop what we have going on … It’s not about me or being arrested. It’s more so about bringing our community out of poverty and establishing our fishery. And we’re going to make that happen regardless of how we get there. But we’ll get there for sure.” 

This interview has been edited for conciseness and clarity.

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