Confusion continues to reign supreme since a self-regulated moderate livelihood lobster fishery was initiated this fall by First Nations in Nova Scotia.
Rallies have been held, violence and property damage has occurred, charges have been laid, a temporary court injunction issued and a federal special representative appointed to facilitate discussions between the commercial lobster industry and Atlantic Canada First Nations.
Former Nova Scotia MLA and President and Vice-Chancellor of Université Sainte-Anne, Allister Surette, was appointed as a “Federal Special Representative, a neutral third-party who will communicate with and rebuild trust between commercial and Indigenous fishers,” states a press release dated Oct. 23 from federal Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan and Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett announcing the appointment.
Surette has been instructed to file an interim report by the end of the year and a final report with advice and recommendations by the end of March 2021.
“We really don’t know what (Surette’s) mandate is. It is just another level of bureaucracy and what does he bring to the table?” said Bernie Berry, president of the Coldwater Lobster Association in an interview. “We’re not sure what kind of role he will play. Does that mean negotiations are going to slow down or stop until they get a report? There are so many unknowns,” adding the one thing industry leaders “are adamant about is that this new position that has been created does not replace direct talks from industry to the minister.”
Talks with the minister, which have amounted to about five, one-hour long phone calls from mid-September to the end of October, have not produced any results, said Berry.
“We haven’t made any headway. We put forward our position strongly and we’re not making any headway” with just “speaking points coming back at us. We are very disappointed in the minister’s reluctance to really move on some of the most vital concerns. Nothing has changed since early September.”
Berry also questioned what role the current study being conducted by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans, Implementation of Mi’kmaq Treaty Fishing Rights to Support a Moderate Livelihood, will play.
“Will they make any kind of recommendations? The standing committee after the Marshall decision really laid out a lot of stuff, how they interpreted the Marshall decision and most of that has been ignored over 21 years, so whatever comes of out of this, will that also be ignored? Is it just another dog and pony show? Is it going to make a difference? What is going to make a difference? If talking to the minister makes no difference and talking to the standing committee makes no difference, we suspect talking to the new negotiator/facilitator, that’s not going to make any difference. Who do we talk to,” asked Berry.
The same day the appointment of the federal special representative was announced, the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaw Chiefs announced that “discussions with DFO have broken down and that is no fault of the Mi’kmaq. We have attempted to work Nation-to-Nation, but the federal government refuses to look beyond their colonized approach. They have not recognized our Supreme Court-affirmed right for over 21 years and it has now become clear they have no intention of seeing the Mi’kmaq exercising our constitutionally-affirmed rights,” said Chief Terrance Paul, Assembly co-chair and Fisheries Lead.
“In a very critical moment the federal government has failed us. We have been pushing for movement from Canada to work together on the right to a moderate livelihood and we have been met once again with roadblocks to these discussions moving ahead,” said Chief Paul.
Since the Mi’kmaq of Nova Scotia see the discussions with Canada failing them at a critical moment, they are now prioritizing a new way forward, stated the release.
“We will not stand by and watch DFO seize any more moderate livelihood traps,” said Chief Wilbert Marshall, Potlotek Mi’kmaw Community. “Exercising our treaty rights is something we can and will continue to do.”
If the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaw Chiefs have pulled out of negotiations, “What does that mean?” asked Berry. “Do they do their own thing and just start their own plan outside the authority of the minister?”
As it is, the moderate livelihood tags and licences are being issued by First Nations.
“The bottom line under the Fisheries Act is the only person who can issue tags and licences and whatever else is the Minister. Full stop,” said Berry. “Nobody else. Not fishing associations, not First Nations, not individuals. It ends and stops right there. Outside of that framework is illegal and unauthorized.”
DFO conservation officers have been conducting some enforcement activity in St. Mary’s Bay and St. Peter’s Bay but it’s been “minimal,” said Berry. “They haven’t really removed any significant amount of gear” in St. Mary’s Bay, added Berry.
“We’ve been told numerous times they (DFO) don’t want to remove the tagged gear the Shubenacadie band has put in St. Mary’s Bay which is illegal and unauthorized gear, but they don’t seem to want to touch that because they don’t want it to hurt negotiations but when you really think about that, that’s a little twisted,” said Berry, agreeing it’s comparable to negotiating with a gun to your head.
“Usually in negotiations everyone takes a step back, stops all aggressive actions and sits down to the table. Not here. It just keeps going and going and going. We actually stressed this to the department that this makes the department almost look farcical. Here we are doing a negotiation when the illegal fishery is actually picking up on a daily basis. This is at the feet of DFO and federal government. Who’s really pulling the strings?”
Meanwhile the Sipekne’katik First Nation, led by Chief Mike Sack, is acting independently of the Assembly of Mi’kmaw Chiefs.
On Oct. 21, the band council applied for and were successful in obtaining a temporary court injunction prohibiting anyone from blockading or restricting band members trying to access or leave the wharves in Saulnierville and Weymouth and a lobster pound building in New Edinburgh in Digby County. It also prohibits interference, either directly or through threats, harassment and intimidation, with the band members’ fishing activity and their fishing gear in the ocean or on land.
The Sipekne’katik First Nation initiated a moderate livelihood fishery in St. Mary’s Bay on Sept. 17, more than 250 km away from their home base in Shubenacadie.
The Bear River First Nation, which is closest to St. Mary’s Bay geographically, issued a statement on Oct. 23 with regards to the activity in St. Mary’s Bay. The Bear River, Annapolis Valley and Acadia First Nations comprise the Kespu’kwitk district.
“Prior to the events taking place in our area, neither the Minister of Fisheries, nor DFO officials, nor representatives from Sipekne’katik First Nation reached out to Bear River First Nation, nor any other Kespu’kwitk community respecting access to and management of lobster resources in St. Mary’s Bay,” wrote Chief Carol Dee Potter. “We are encouraged by subsequent contacts we have had with DFO and the Minster and hope they regularly continue. The Kespu’kwitk communities were in the front lines of the unrest that immediately followed the Marshall decision in 1999. Our communities worked tirelessly to build bridges and repair relationships with non-Mi’kmaq fishers and communities. Our children go to school with one another, we share communities with one another and often our families are connected to one another. All of that work over the past decades is quickly being eroded by others who will soon leave this area, leaving us to pick up the pieces,” wrote Chief Potter.
“As such, Bear River First Nation expects respectful dialogue with the Crown, our fellow Mi’kmaq communities and the non-Mi’kmaq fishery pertaining to the lobster fishery in St. Mary’s Bay. To date that has not taken place.”
Chief Potter wrote “It is hard to see how any way forward can be developed at a point in time when so many are intent on escalating the situation in St. Mary’s Bay. Bear River First Nation calls on all parties involved to develop an interim understanding for a defined period of time that allows all Mi’kmaq communities to participate in a meaningful way. Our community members are currently suffering the backlash of events we have no control over and are denied safe access to resources that are rightfully ours. This cannot be allowed to continue.”