Having flown into the city of Halifax, the capital of Nova Scotia, I am travelling northeast towards the Island of Cape Breton. I am on my way to meet the Mi'kmaq, who may not be the most well-known tribe in North America, but by living on the coast they represent a way life that was practiced by many native communities.
The Mi'kmaq were fishermen and hunter-gatherers. They were semi-nomadic, routinely migrating between summer fishing villages near the coast to winter camps inland. The single-family winter hunting camps were scattered, but during the spring and summer Mi'kmaq families joined others to form villages.
The Mi'kmaq were one of the first Native Americans tribes to have regular contact with the Europeans settlers. The first known contact was made in 1497 by the navigator and explorer John Cabot. Contact between the Mi'kmaq and the Europeans became more frequent with Spanish, French and British fishing boats travelling to the area.
As well as trade the Europeans also brought modern religion, disease and warfare. The French and British fought hard for the Mi'kmaq traditional lands. Through trade and religion the Mi'Kmaq allied themselves with the French and for a century they found themselves at the centre of the French and British struggle for supremacy in the Maritimes.
After years of fighting, the British eventually exacted their dominance over the French and in the late 1700s the Mi'Kmaq and other neighbouring tribes signed treaties with the British. With this relative peace was seen in the Maritimes for the first time in decades.
In the early 1940's the Nova Scotia Department of Indian Affairs began implementing a Mi'kmaq reserve centralization program which involved relocating the numerous small Mi'kmaq communities to a few larger towns.
Opponents of the program protested the uprooting of established communities and questioned the effect of forced consolidation on the Mi'kmaq culture. Nevertheless, many Mi'kmaq were moved to Eskasoni, in Cape Breton, and Shubenacadie, in central Nova Scotia.
Although those who moved were promised jobs, good housing and better access to medical and recreational services, overcrowded living conditions and unemployment plagued the centralised communities. By the 1950's, it was apparent that the centralisation policy had failed. Local Mi'kmaq Band Councils began to take control of their own affairs, and today there are 13 Mi'kmaq First Nation reserves in the province of Nova Scotia.
My first stop on this journey is one of the towns that saw an influx of people during the centralisation years, the Mi'kmaq reserve of Eskasoni. Situated on the shores of the Bras d'Or Lake, Eskasoni is the largest Mi'kmaq community. For centuries the Mi'Kmaq people have lived along the shores of this lake, and have relied heavily on what it could provide.
I am on my way to meet Lawrence Paul, who is apparently one of the most experienced fishermen in the community. Turning off the main road and on to a dirt track, I am following Lawrence's directions and looking for a house with a boat outside.
Spotting a fishing boat propped up next to a modest looking house I have clearly arrived at the home of a very successful fisherman. Parked out the front of the house are a line of brand new 4x4 pick-up trucks all freshly polished and dotted around I see snow-mobiles and a nice looking Harley Davidson motorcycle.
Sat next to the boat I notice a group of men and as I get out of the car one of them walks towards me. This must be Lawrence, he welcomes me to Canada. What strikes me first about Lawrence is that he speaks fantastically in his own language, he is extremely animated, and before I know it he is giving me a tour of his place.
He takes me into his workshop where he keeps all his hunting and fishing gear and explains to me that he not only fishes for a living but that he also fishes, and hunts for food. In the freezer he points out a bear which he had shot a few days ago, and on the walls there are lots of photographs of him hunting and fishing, including some of him on his commercial crab fishing boat.
Virgil does the first hour of his show totally in the Lakota language, and then a mixture of Lakota and English after that. As I arrive he has Rod Stewart on the radio, so he obviously has a good taste in music. When we go on the air Virgil has plenty of questions and we have a really good chat, he is quite a character.
Lawrence then introduces me to his brother, who is also a fisherman, they explain to me how they have made a lucrative business from commercial fishing, and this is what has paid for all their 'toys' - the 4x4s and the snow-mobiles. Although they make a lot of money from this industry they are actually fishing on behalf of their community, which still takes the biggest share of any income.
Lawrence kindly invites me to his family's lakeside camp to see how fishing and hunting continue to be an important part of the Mi'kmaq way of life. I arrange to meet Lawrence and his family at the camp and following his directions I find myself travelling through a landscape that reminds me of home; thick forests, rolling hills, rocky shores and mist covered meadows.
Autumn has not quite fallen here yet and many of the leaves are still green, although there are signs of the season changing with the red leaves of the Canadian maple tree dotted along the roadside. After driving through dense woodlands and along lake shores I eventually reach Lawrence's camp.
It is situated right on the edge of the Bras d'or Lake, which has a layer of mist hovering above it. The camp itself consists of a small wooden building overlooking the lake, a few outhouses. They are generally filled with Lawrence's hunting, fishing and trapping equipment and a couple of up-turned rowing boats on the lake shore.
With Lawrence's brother, friends and children all at the camp I am set to work straight away.It is still a bit early in the year for certain types of fishing, but Lawrence wants to put a net out to test the lake for fish. As the kids look on Lawrence drags a small boat near to the shore, I climb in and he begins to push us out.
As Lawrence paddles and then prepares the nets I begin bailing out the water that is coming into the boat at an alarming rate. Lawrence throws a few concrete blocks into dark water to weigh the net down, and we reel the net out across a small section of one of the lake's many inlets and coves.
Lawrence explains that we will leave the net overnight and come back first thing in the morning to check it. This little boat may be a bit leaky but it is clear that whether it is on this small scale or through his work as a commercial fisherman, this is an important part of Lawrence's life.
The following morning Lawrence and his family are up and about early, apart from one young lad who was in charge of keeping the fire going all night, he is still curled up under a blanket. The nights here on Canada's north east coast get pretty cold and later in the year the huge lake will even begin to freeze over.
For now though the lake is unfrozen and for the Mi'kmaq it continues to be a bountiful food source. Earlier in the morning one of Lawrence's brothers had waded out into the lake to collect a bowl full of oysters and as I arrive Lawrence is already prizing them open.
They don't get much fresher than this and Lawrence offers me one. They don't taste of much, but as some say they are an aphrodisiac what better way to start the day - Lawrence smiles and says that's why he has so many children.
After breakfast we drag the leaky boat back to the cove where we set the net, once again Lawrence pushes us out and I begin bailing the water. As we check the net it soon becomes clear that it is still not quite the right time for fishing here as we only catch one small Flounder.
I ask Lawrence whether there is any form of Mi'kmaq spirituality linked to fishing practices; he tells me that it is customary to offer thanks to the creator for any food that is harvested.
He then takes out a cigarette and removes the tobacco, a substance that has spiritual significance to Native communities across North America, he sprinkles the tobacco over the water as an offering. He says that he asks the creator that when he checks this net again it will yield more fish and that he will be able to provide food for his family.
As we make our way back to shore I think to myself whether there is any place for this spiritual aspect in the commercial fishing industry which has proved so lucrative for Lawrence and the Mi'kmaq people - I do not see how the two can exist together.
Rights, Treaty and Donald Marshal Jr.
For years the fishing and hunting rights of the Mi'kmaq people have been a highly debated political issue in Canada. The Mi'kmaq claim that their traditional right to hunt and fish was made official by treaties signed with the British in the 18th century. Yet despite this Mi'kmaq individuals have been prohibited and even received criminal punishment for fishing and hunting. Mi'kmaq rights were finally cemented when one Mi'kmaq individual, Donald Marshall Jr., was arrested for fishing for eels and eventuallywon his Supreme Court case in 1999.
With Mi'kmaq fishing rights now firmly established, the commercial fishing industry and also small scale fishing has to be closely monitored. To learn more about how the fishing in the area is controlled and managed I have arranged to meet two Mi'kmaq Fisheries Enforcement Officers who have been employed by the Canadian Government to monitor and police the local area.
Arriving at a local marina I see a 4x4 emblazoned with governmental logos. Stood next to it, I see one guy who must be well over 6ft tall and another who is barely 5ft, they seem to be quite a team. The big guy is Philip Prosper and the other is Tim Cremo, and I am going to tag along with them as they carry out a patrol on the lake.
Heading down to the docks I climb aboard their patrol boat and as I put on my life-jacket we begin to motor out of the marina. Phil opens up the throttle and the two powerful outboard motors roar into action, the bow lifts out of the water and we begin to speed across the pristine waters of the lake.
As we cruise across the open waters I take in the amazing landscape. The water's edges are flanked by lines of trees, some a deep green, others showing the first signs of autumn. Dotted along the shores there are houses and camps similar to that of Lawrence and his family, reminders of the Mi'kmaq families who lived on these shores for centuries.
While the waters here still provide the Mi'kmaq people with food they are also home to a thriving maritime industry, not only fishing, but also crab and lobster fishermen. It is Phil and Tim's job to ensure that both Mi'kmaq and non-native fishermen are following the rules. Their day-to-day work varies but it can involve everything from combating poachers to checking fishing boats. Today there are no boats in the area but we are going to check a couple of the lobster pots.
While we are doing the rounds I speak with Phil and Tim. It is clear that the fishing industry in this part of the world is big business and can bring in a lot of fish and a lot of money. Now that the Mi'kmaq are involved in this industry it is still difficult to see how this can coincide with their traditional beliefs of only taking what was needed.
While fishing was traditionally the main form of food gathering for the Mi'kmaq in the spring and summer months, in the autumn and winter this would have been supplemented by hunting and trapping. With the autumn fast approaching I have arranged to meet up with a local hunter who will hopefully be able to tell me more about this aspect of Mi'kmaq tradition.
It is about 5 o'clock in the morning and I am stood outside a coffee shop waiting for Danny Paul, who I am told is one of the last traditional Mi'kmaq hunters.
After some time three 4x4s pull up next to mine and out of each climb a pair of guys dressed in a mixture of bright orange gear and camouflage, they are dressed for a day's hunting. Danny introduces himself and his friends and with a round of coffee we head off in convoy with the sun yet to rise.
Driving along the highway at night we suddenly come to a stop. Ahead I see a shadow cross the road and dash into the trees, it was a moose and a big one at that, but Danny and the others leave this one and we continue on. The next time we stop it is too board a ferry to cross a river - with flood lights on the deck it is quite an eerie sight to see the vessel lumbering across the still dark water.
As we leave the highway we turn on to a gravel track that takes us up into the highlands of Cape Breton. Coming to a stop the sun is just beginning to rise. Danny hands me a bright orange hat and jacket, it might look strange but this could save my life, this is popular hunting territory and it is important that hunters can see each other while out in the forest.
Danny explains that he arranges these hunting trips to help teach younger members of the Mi'kmaq communities about their heritage and how to hunt according to Mi'kmaq traditions. He assembles us all and begins a ceremony, burning tobacco and sage in a shell he waves the smoke over us with eagle feathers, and places food and drink in some birch bark as an offering.
He explains that it is important for him to conduct this ceremony and it is important for the younger members of the group to learn how to hunt according to their traditional beliefs as Mi'kmaq. To hunt for food not for sport, to provide for themselves and their community and to givethanks for what they take.
We continue on in convoy, climbing ever higher, then we come to a stop. I see one of the guys in the truck in front signal to the right, looking into the tree I see a moose, about 100 metres from the road. Within seconds the hunters have all piled out of their trucks with their rifles in hand, I get out as well.
They move into position, but before everyone is set one of the younger hunters takes the shot. A deafening blast rings out around the trees, and the one who shot signals that he hit it, but it ran off into the undergrowth. I team up with Danny and we go after it.
As we move through the trees there is another loud blast, Danny had stumbled across the moose lying in the undergrowth, he shot at it but again it ran off. I think to myself how it must have taken hours if not days to hunt a moose on foot using only a bow and arrow.
As we continue through the thick brush a few more shots ring out and then finally the call - they've got it. Still following closely behind Danny we come across the moose lying motionless in the undergrowth. After a few pokes to make sure it is dead the other guys arrive, it is young Bull Moose, but it is still a formidable animal.
I understand that this is very much part of the Mi'kmaq traditional way-of-life and that it is part of their relationship with the natural world, but for me it is always difficult to see a wild animal killed. For Danny though he wastes little time, and sprinkling tobacco across the moose he says prayer and gives thanks. The others look on intently, although they are buoyant having made the kill there is a somber atmosphere amongst the group.
In turn each member of the group blows tobacco smoke into the nostrils of the moose; this is a mark of respect to the animal and is believed to help its spirit depart. With that they pull the moose out on to the road.
With the kill made there is still a lot of work to be done, they must gut the moose ready for it to be butchered later. This is an important day for the youngest member of the group, Evan, who is only a teenager. He is not ready to kill a moose yet, but this will be the first time he has gutted one, an important stage in his knowledge of Mi'kmaq tradition. With Danny and the others watching and advising Evan every step of the way he is guided through the process.
Meanwhile Danny explains to me that the non-native hunters will only take the head of the moose as a trophy, leaving the rest of the carcass to rot. Whereas they as Mi'kmaq ensure everything is used, even the guts and other innards will be left to feed the eagles and the crows that will soon begin to circle overhead.
Danny says that it saddens him to think of an animal being left in such a way, he says that those who do that are not hunters, they are not providers, they are committing murder. Ensuring that the Mi'kmaq ways are followed and passed on to the next generation of hunters is clearly something that Danny is very passionate about.
For the final part of my journey I have arranged to meet with Lawrence Paul again to see the fishing industry I have heard so much about. I have travelled to the Port of Pubnico a French Canadian fishing town on the southern tip of Nova Scotia.
This is a busy fishing port with hundreds of vessels packed into the harbor, including the pride of the Eskasoni fishing fleet, the trawler The Chief Blair Francis. It is late in the afternoon and as I approach the mooring I can see Lawrence parked on the dock next to the ship, he tells me that he is looking forward to getting out to sea; something tells me he might be more at home on a boat than he is on dry land.
The ship's crew is busily preparing the ship for four days at sea, during which time they will be working around the clock. The supplies are already on board, and the crew goes about loading the nets and other equipment. As we wait for the rest of the crew to arrive the evening draws in and Lawrence gives me a quick tour of the ship. It is clearly a state-of-the-art vessel, this is a big leap from Lawrence's leaky boat on the lake.
With the rest of the crew here we load their gear and survival suits, designed to keep people alive if they fall into the cold waters of the north Atlantic, I hope that I won't be needing one of these. The ships engines rubble into life and the lines are released; we begin to drift away from the harbor wall.
It is a clear night and the sun has long since set, as we leave the harbor behind the scene is lit by an orange moon and the ship's flood lights. With the motors rumbling beneath the deck Lawrence explains to me that he is always excited when travelling out to sea - he may be reaching retirement age for most but I don't think he will be giving this up any time soon.
With nothing but the black empty ocean to be seen in every direction, myself and the film crew will have to board a support boat for the remainder of the evening as there are not enough bunks for everyone. In the morning though, we plan to climb back aboard to join Lawrence and the others as they begin the first day of fishing for haddock.
Rough Seas in the Morning
It seems that Mother-Nature has other plans for us though. As I climb up from below deck I can tell that the sea is not as calm as the weather forecast had suggested, the boat is wheeling from side to side. Above deck our captain explains that a serious swell has risen overnight and the sea is looking pretty choppy.
It is nothing for the fishermen, and they are already preparing for the first trawls of the day, but it is going to make our transfer back to the trawler very difficult, still the captains of each vessel give the go ahead to try.
They bring the vessels alongside each other and the crew from the trawler throw a few ropes across, I can hear the captain from our support boat frantically speaking to the captain of the trawler, then he turns around and barks a few orders at the crew on the trawler.
We are within a few meters of the trawler and it is lurching up and down, the deck rising several meters above our boat, but if we can tie the ropes on we have been instructed to step from one boat to the other without hesitation.
The deck hand on our boat ties one rope on, as the trawler looms up again it pulls tight and then comes loose with a snap, we all stand clear. With the line made fast again we are right up alongside the trawler, the crew are waiting for us to step across and I go for it - the captain shouts no, no, no! I freeze and retreat from the side of the boat, the captain does not think it is safe to cross.
We pull away from the trawler; the sea is not on our side today. Lawrence waves at us and the trawler crew disappear from the deck to begin preparing for the first trawl of the day.
Time is money in this business and the captain of the trawler wastes no time in shooting his nets, we see the nets stream off the back of the trawler. The net will drag along the bottom of the ocean capturing everything it is path, although these nets are designed to only catch fish of a certain size this is a fairly indiscriminative process.
As we wait for the first trawl of fish to appear I think about how sustainable this industry is, not just here and now but across the world. With millions of tons of fish being taken from the seas every year there are global concerns about overfishing. I know that a lot of time and effort is spent in monitoring fish stocks, and that commercial fisheries work to strict quotas, but I cannot help but think that if we continue to fish at this level then within my children's lifetime there might not be any fish left in the sea.
As the first of the trawls appear from the ocean-bed I can see that the nets are packed with what must be several tons of fish worth thousands of dollars. I do not think this industry can coincide with the old ways, the traditional ways of the Mi'kmaq. They used to hunt and fish to survive this is all about catching as much fish and making as much money as possible.
With one catch on board and the second trawl underway the seas have calmed, but the fog has descended and the decision is made to get Lawrence back on to our boat and head back to port. Luckily for us there was a scallop fishing ship in the area with a small launch, they helped us to retrieve Lawrence from the trawler and get him back to our boat.
Eventually Lawrence climbs back on board, and as we begin to motor back to the port we leave the trawler to continue fishing. As it disappears into the mist I speak with Lawrence about the commercial fishing industry. He says that at home he fishes for food, but out here it is all about making money, but it is his livelihood and it allows him to provide for his family and his community. Although I am concerned about the environmental effects of this industry I find hard to argue against a man who only wants the best for his people.
As we return to port the fog is heavy in the air and seems to have covered the land as well as the sea. I knew nothing of the Mi'kmaq before arriving here, but I have learned a lot and now my time on the Atlantic coast has come to an end. Lawrence and the others I have met along the way have given me such a warm welcome and it is clear that they are a nation passionate about their heritage.
The Mi'kmaq have moved forward into the modern world through their commercial fishing ventures and some have become very successful. Although this has helped provide a valuable resource for the communities, I do worry that they have lost some connection with their traditional ways, it is a difficult balance and only the future will tell whether the Mi'kmaq are able to maintain their traditions and continue to develop in the commercial world.