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Resilient fishermen work and survive in Chesapeake Bay Mi’kmaq territory

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Two women walk through pictures of human and animal cruelty that is decorating a house at the New World Mi’kmaq Nation residential school, in Couva, Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada, Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2016. A first-of-its-kind report on the treatment of aboriginal children at the residential school depicted examples of beatings, sexual abuse and a lack of consistent guidance that left children little safe from the abuse inflicted on them in hundreds of church-run schools across Canada starting in the 1800s. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press via AP) – Bulletin

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Dan Bilefsky New York Times News Service

WINDSOR, N.S. — Fourteen times a day, Kevin Pendleton uses a large bag of algae-producing chemical hydrochloric acid to blast large craters into the granite floor of a boat harbor on Folly Point.

A 39-year-old Mi’kmaq fisherman from Halifax, Pendleton likens the flammable chemical to dynamite in his boat, which he repairs, cleans and paints with an aerosol sprayer.

The chemical creates fissures in stones as big as small houses, allowing fishermen and their families to ride the thermals through the water’s surface with ease.

While so many Mi’kmaq people go into the fishery, Pendleton said, his family also wanted to make a living off the environment itself.

“We’re keeping some of the land on which we live,” Pendleton said. “You can feel your feet as you go through it. You get the whole ocean. The fog gets in the gaps, like a rug. That’s what the women make, from all the wood residue.”

Pendleton, a father of six and grandfather of 16, is just one of a small number of Mi’kmaq lobstermen here. A community of about 1,200 people, he has navigated a challenging landscape to find a livelihood.

For centuries, the Mi’kmaq people homesteaded Cape Breton Island, the site of their ancestors’ first landing and that of the early British crown. But when Dutch explorers came in 1608, they established the colony of New Caledonia on the island’s western tip and forcibly removed indigenous peoples.

“The land that is now Halifax — it was ours first,” Pendleton said. “It’s what made me strong.”

A second generation later, most Mi’kmaq people — like Pendleton — were expelled from Nova Scotia in the late 1800s.

Traditionally hunted, then poached, for lobster, young Mi’kmaq boys and men in their teens were taken away and sent to boarding schools in New England and elsewhere for survival education.

Shortly after formal colonization began, schools were forced to close in the 1950s. Eventually, most of the former residents returned home.

In 2003, a new kind of settlement opened here.

About 100 houses sit in a waterfront complex called the Red Sand Cape; the homes are occupied by Mi’kmaq descendants of people who used to live on Cape Breton, and their descendants.

Until 1976, it was a rusting half-dozen-room hotel on the shores of the green water. The building was occupied by an early 20th-century residential school that opened on the island that year.

In other words, the school is what introduced Mi’kmaq fishermen to the seafood industry on Cape Breton.

“No one else was doing it,” Pendleton said. “We were pioneers.”

Sobering statistics about the Mi’kmaq industry — its 0.8 percent share of the seafood market in Canada and its ability to sustain approximately 26,000 full-time jobs, compared with, say, the 26,920 full-time seafood industry jobs in Maine — cannot quite convince subsistence fisherman J.B. Dryden and his brother, Steven, it is a decent living.

“The fact that the food industry is so dependent on us sends a bad message,” J.B. Dryden said. “We’re resilient, but we still have a chance to be a major food producer like Nova Scotia or Maine, if we stick together and get out of the holes that have brought us here.”

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