"People make a lot of parallels between the stories of privatizing of public resources, downsizing of government services and off-loading of responsibilities to community...we're all in that boat. This is the same agenda that's hitting health care, education. People, even if they're not fishing, they see the themes resonating in their own lives."
That's Martha Stiegman, talking about audiences' reactions to her pair of documentaries, In The Same Boat?, about the traditions and struggles in small-scale, rural Nova Scotia fishing.
The Halifax-bred, Montreal-based filmmaker's background is in community organizing. In 2002 she attended a community workshop at the Coady International Institute at St. Francis Xavier University, where she met many of the subjects of her two-part documentary. "The story of how I became a filmmaker and the story of how I made this film is the same thing," she says, having attended the workshop without knowing anything about fishing or First Nations.
The workshop brought together two groups, native and non-native, who'd previously been involved at the standoff at Burnt Church, New Brunswick, following the 1999 Marshall decision—the Supreme Court case that upheld the rights of Mi'kmaq people to fish outside the current fisheries regulations, upholding treaties inked in the 18th century. Non-natives feared the depletion of the fish stocks and a market inequity given the restrictions on their own fishing practices. Though an uneasy truce was established, in the years following, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans stepped in with a more industrial vision, allowing individual quotas to be sold to larger companies.
The workshop served as one way for the native and the non-native fishermen to see that they had more in common than not, especially "against the corporate agenda the DFO was pushing." Stiegman witnessed Wayne Spinney, a "burly lobster fisherman" who helped organize a fishing boat blockade in Yarmouth Harbour, stand up and say, "I've been educated since then and thank god for that. And if we're going to have a resource to pass down to our children then we're going to have to work together. Now, I want all the First Nations and all the non-
native fishermen from Nova Scotia in that corner. We're going to spend the day together and hammer out an action plan."
Inspired by this solidarity, Stiegman spent three years collaborating with the people of the Bear River First Nation and the non-native fishing community in Digby to create her 40-minute diptych, In The Same Boat? The first part, In Defense of Our Treaties, visits with the First Nation group and elucidates how the assimilation into a commercial industry that saw 34 of 36 native bands sell their quotas to larger companies is ending a traditional way of life, part of a cultural identity stretching back centuries. Woven into the story is a genuine concern for the sustainability of the fish stocks.
The second part, The End of The Line, is about Terry Fansworth, one of only three remaining "handliner" fishers in Digby, who continues to fish "by hand," as opposed to by trawling or other mechanized methods. Though the community managed to end the corporate privatization of their small part of the fishery, it's happened perhaps too late: Fansworth has seen stocks drop 75 percent.
"Terry is so adamant, and when he says that, Sherry is right next to him, nodding completely in agreement, about the fact that handlining was a way of life, that small-scale family fishing was a way of life. It's outrageous that we have to use the past tense to describe it. There's a corporate takeover that's swept through virtually every sector of the in-shore fisheries. The last bastion is pretty much lobster. This is a way of life and a culture pretty much on the edge."
Stiegman, with the help of the fishing communities, The Bay of Fundy Resource Centre and the Ecology Action Centre, is taking her films on a tour of Mi'kmaq communities in Nova Scotia, ending with a screening at the Oxford on Saturday, November 17.
"It's really the struggle to defend the way of life that resonates with everyone," says Stiegman. "Both Bear River and Terry have sacrificed financially to be able to do this. It's been powerful to see the overwhelming response to what they're doing."
In The Same Boat?, Saturday, November 17 at the Oxford, 6408 Quinpool, 1pm, 446-4840, $5 donation.