Two First Nations fishermen have said they were forced to walk shoeless for hours in the dark and cold after Canadian federal officers seized their boots and phones.

The prime minister, Justin Trudeau, said the allegations were “extremely troubling” amid mounting anger over the treatment of the Mi’kmaw fishermen, whose ordeal has prompted comparisons with the notorious “starlight tours” in which the police routinely abandoned Indigenous people in the bitter cold.

Blaise Sylliboy of Eskasoni First Nation and Kevin Hartling of Membertou First Nation were arrested by federal fisheries officers on the night of 26 March while fishing for elvers in a river in south-west Nova Scotia.

The season to harvest glass eels is relatively brief, beginning in March and typically running until May. Coveted in China and Japan, where they are grown on farms and harvested for food, the translucent fish command a steep price, with buyers paying $5,000 a kilogram last year.

Canada’s endangered wildlife committee designated the species as “threatened” more than a decade ago, and the federal government has put limits on the harvest. The total allowable catch for 2023 is 9,960kg, unchanged over the last 18 years.

Recently, however, the federal government granted Indigenous communities a growing share of the commercial quota, an industry worth nearly C$50m ($36m). Last year, nations were allocated 14% of the commercial harvest.

But this year, Canada’s fisheries minister refused to open the spring fishery for elvers, amid rising violence and poaching. Officers have arrested nearly 40 people since early March, and seized vehicles, nets and weapons. In one case, officers were struck by a truck fleeing an inspection.

Indigenous nations have grown increasingly frustrated that their treaty rights have not been recognised by the federal government. Canada’s supreme court has previously ruled that Indigenous peoples have a right to harvest from the land and water in order to obtain a “moderate livelihood” – a term the federal government repeatedly failed to define over the years, leading to tense standoffs. Both Sylliboy and Hartling asserted their claim that they have a treaty right to harvest the glass eels.

After the pair were arrested, the officers confiscated their fishing waders – with their boots attached – and their cellphones, a “standard practice” when investigating poaching, the department said in a statement.

Sylliboy told CBC News he was in so much pain from the handcuffs he agreed to be dropped off at a gas station shortly after midnight.

But without a phone, he was unable to call friends or family for help.

“I told [the officer], like, ‘Man, this is outrageous. You’re leaving me with no shoes,’” Sylliboy said. “He said, ‘You know the consequences. But I said, ‘I know the consequences, but this is, like, outrageous on human rights.’ And he was like, ‘Yeah, sounds like your guys’ problem.’”

The men were told to leave the gas station and so they walked along the road in search of a motel, their feet wrapped in duct tape and plastic bags.

“When we were walking, there’s times I’m like, ‘Man, if we stop, we’re going to die,’ because our feet were just soaked,” Hartling told CBC.

They said an ambulance driver stopped to let them use his phone, but refused to pick them up. The pair eventually convinced a truck driver to bring them to the town of Shelburne.

Neither of the men have been formally charged.

Bob Gloade, the chief of Millbrook First Nation called the incident “appalling” and “inhumane”, and said DFO should terminate the officers involved.

“We need a complete investigation to find out exactly what happened,” Trudeau said. “Obviously, it’s important that there be enforcement of illegal fishing laws, but there are processes and procedures that need to be followed when someone is apprehended.”

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Guardian

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