Hundreds of people from coastal communities throughout southwestern Nova Scotia attended a rally in Barrington Passage on Oct. 19. Kathy Johnson photo

“Establishing trust and respect is an important first step” for implementing the right to fish in pursuit of a moderate livelihood, said Allister Surette in his interim report to federal Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan and Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Carolyn Bennett in January.

Surette was appointed a federal special representative last fall as a neutral third-party to gather perspectives, find common ground and identify opportunities to rebuild trust and improve relationships between Indigenous rights holders, non-Indigenous peoples and other parties including all levels of government involved in the fishery.

At the time of the report, Surette said he had gathered a range of perspectives from over 85 different individuals. He heard from First Nations, representatives of commercial fishers’ associations and individual non-Indigenous fishers, current federal parliamentarians, representatives from the Government of Nova Scotia, leaders from southwestern Nova Scotia municipal units, present and former DFO employees, the RCMP “and consultants, observers and former parliamentarians knowledgeable and involved in initiatives relating to the Supreme Court of Canada Marshall decision.”

Of the individuals interviewed, approximately 81 per cent were non-Indigenous representatives, while 19 per cent were from First Nations leadership and involved in Indigenous organizations.

“I have reached out to many First Nations since beginning my work, so I hope to have more discussions with First Nations in the new year,” said Surette. “I am committed to gather more Indigenous perspectives in the new year to provide a more balanced summary of my findings in my final report.”

Surette said he has also reviewed numerous documents, “keenly observed the series of seven workshops” organized by DFO and the Canadian Independent Fish Harvesters Federation (CIFHF) regarding reconciliation with Indigenous peoples in fisheries, has been following the House of Commons Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans meetings in its study on the Implementation of Mi’kmaq Treaty Fishing Rights to Support a Moderate Livelihood and has revisited the Committee’s December 1999 report entitled The Marshall Decision and Beyond: Implications for the Management of the Atlantic Fisheries.

“My purpose in doing the variety of approaches was to understand the history and hear firsthand from authorities and stakeholders on the multiplicity of perspectives on the issue,” said Surette.

“Establishing trust and respect is an important first step” and “Efforts in relationship building must be a priority,” are among the key issues, points and suggestions related to his mandate that he heard during interviews that should be addressed, said Surette in his interim report. Transparency, dialogue, input, communication and information sharing are also pegged as key issues.

“The lack of trust and respect has been presented to me by many of the individuals I interviewed,” said Surette.

“Firstly, I have heard from Indigenous and non-Indigenous parties of the lack of trust in government. Added to this level of the lack of trust and respect, some interviewed also expressed the lack of trust and respect within parties involved in the fishery and I also heard of the lack of trust and respect between Indigenous and non-Indigenous individuals, stakeholder groups and organizations.”

Surette also found common ground.

“All parties I interviewed recognize the importance of the lobster fishery as a key economic driver to our coastal communities and to the Atlantic provinces and it would be to no one’s advantage to jeopardize this industry. Not only is this industry of economic benefit to those directly involved in it, but it is of benefit to the entire supply chain, all local businesses, and to the prosperity of our entire coastal communities. It was suggested by several of those I have spoken with, from both Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities, that collaborative initiatives jointly conducted could play a key role in enhancing relationships.”

Surette said in most, if not all interviews, “conservation and sustainability of the resource was a common topic discussed. There seemed to be a willingness to work together on joint research projects with contribution to approaches from all involved.”

Surette said it was also mentioned numerous times that, before anything else, “all must find ways to reduce frustrations and tensions and let open-minded individuals, calmer voices and reasonable thinking prevail in order to build relationships and establish a constructive path forward… All parties I interviewed agreed that a renewed approach is required to build trust and relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous fishers.”

Surette said so far, he is hearing needs “for at least three different forums and venues including a clearing house for factual and timely information; a reference group as a means to facilitate transparency and to enhance the engagement of the commercial industry in matters of interest and concerns as it pertains to Indigenous access to the fishery and dialogue forums bringing together First Nations leadership, non-Indigenous fisheries representatives and possibly government representatives as a basis for constructive dialogue and future collaboration.”

Surette is due to file his final report and recommendations sometime this spring.

“Mr. Surette’s recommendations will be very helpful as we continue moving forward together,” reads an email statement from Minister Jordan’s office. 

“As we have said from the beginning, Indigenous and commercial harvesters have fished side by side for generations and it is imperative that we work to rebuild relationships in our communities.”

In the meantime, “The Minister and the Department continue to meet with First Nations and commercial harvesters across Nova Scotia and Atlantic Canada, where conversations have been productive. We remain ready and willing to meet with Chief Sack to continue implementing Sipekne’katik First Nation’s right to fish in pursuit of a moderate livelihood. The safety of all involved has been the Minister’s priority from day one, and we are pleased to see that LFAs 33 and 34 have had a peaceful, productive season so far.”

In mid-December, the Sipekne’katik First Nation stopped nation-to-nation discussions with Ottawa on implementing treaty rights in the moderate livelihood fishery after rejecting a draft memorandum of understanding (MOU) from federal Fisheries Minister Jordan.

In a letter to Jordan, Chief Sack says the community is disappointed with the approach taken by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO).

“We entered into such discussions with optimism and transparency, eager to collaborate with DFO on the safe and respectful exercise of our member’s constitutional treaty fishery rights,” the letter stated.

“We understood that DFO had been directed by the Prime Minister to ensure our treaty rights were recognized, respected and exercised safely and without hindrance. However, we were sadly disappointed.”