How seven Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq First Nations acquired a billion-dollar company

Posted on July 01, 2021 | By Stephen Kimber | 0 Comments


If you want to follow the stuttering steps back to the origin story for last year’s jaw-dropping billion-dollar deal—the one in which seven Mi’kmaq First Nations acquired a half interest in fishery giant Clearwater Seafoods Inc.—you could do far worse than start with the Marshall decision.

No, not that one. 

I don’t mean to suggest the Marshall case you’re most likely thinking of—the landmark 1999 Supreme Court of Canada decision recognizing the legitimacy of 250-year-old treaties that guaranteed Indigenous hunting and fishing rights—wasn’t significant. 

It was, and it is. 

But I’m thinking of another, even earlier landmark case, also involving Donald Marshall, Jr. That case coincidentally changed the life of yet another young Mi’kmaq man, setting him off on a career course that would eventually transform the economy of his Membertou First Nation and, now, the future of the entire Atlantic fishery.

That young man was Terry Paul, best known today as the long-time band chief of the Membertou First Nation and the architect of the Clearwater deal.

But let’s start with the Cliff’s Notes version of my suggested original origin-story court case. In 1971, Donald Marshall, Jr. was wrongly convicted of murdering a Black friend. He spent 11 years in prison before finally being exonerated in the late 1980s by a royal commission that blamed systemic racism and an unequal justice system for his incarceration.

Like Donald Marshall, Terrance Paul was born in Membertou, the Indigenous reserve in Sydney, Cape Breton. He was born there in December 1951, just a few years before Marshall.

When he was four, Terry was shipped off to Shubenacadie, a justly notorious Indian residential school. Officially, he spent three years there. “My memory,” he says now, “tells me it was four years.” Given the too- casual brutality he endured and the too-common attempts to silence his language and erase his Indigenous culture, it must have seemed like a lifetime to a displaced little boy.

Returning home to Cape Breton, Terry remembers a sunny day, remembers a woman driving him to Chapel Island, another reserve, where he was being sent to live with a foster family. By then, he had become so disconnected from his own life, he says, “I didn’t realize that the woman driving the car was my mom.”

In retrospect, however, he now believes he was fortunate to have grown up as a foster kid, bouncing from rural band to rural band. Fortunate? “I say fortunate because language and culture were more important on rural reserves. I got to learn about my own culture.”

As a teenager back in Membertou, Terry and Junior, as Marshall was known, came of age on the reserve’s hardscrabble urban-rural streets. They often hung out together. Junior’s best friend was Terry’s uncle. “Growing up,” Terry says with a laugh today of his own complicated family life, “I thought he was my brother.” Terry also played hockey with Sandy Seale, the young Black man Marshall would later be accused of killing.

Even before the murder, life was difficult for the residents of Membertou, one of Canada’s few urban reserves. Residents didn’t finally get indoor plumbing until the sixties, and he remembers “the arrival of the first streetlights as a cause for celebration.” Although the reserve had once nestled along the water’s edge, the federal and local powers that were conspired to “relocate” it to a landlocked site early in the twentieth century “because Indians were a hindrance to progress.”

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