The Federal Government Is Failing Both Mi’kmaq and Non-Indigenous Fishers

Once again, the Trudeau Liberals are making things worse by doing nothing. The greatest damage is to Sipekne’katik fishers.

To refresh memories, it was less than twelve months ago that Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs began a protest the Coastal gas pipeline in British Columbia. Construction had commenced after a lengthy consultation with the elected representatives of the Wet’suwet’en, who supported the project and the jobs it would create for their members.

The efforts of the hereditary chiefs to blockade the project were joined by other demonstrations across the country blocking roads and rail lines. This caused risks to safe travel and was against the law.

Instead of acting, Trudeau offered a history lesson: “We know that centuries of marginalization, of oppressive, broken government policies have created a situation that is untenable.”

Here is what was said in this space in February:

“Canadian exports are being blocked, supplies of propane are running short in Atlantic Canada, travellers between major cities have no rail option, thousands of workers are being laid off, and supply chains are being disrupted. The government was totally unprepared for this predictable confrontation.”

The protests ended when the chiefs settled for a discussion that said nothing about the pipeline but enshrined their role in future discussions about land rights, at the expense of the elected representatives.

Fast forward to early September. Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq signalled a plan to create their own modest livelihood fishery. They are seeking to exercise a right defined 21 years ago in the Marshall case to have a moderate livelihood fishery, subject to government regulation.

Bernadette Jordan, Canada’s Minister of Fisheries and Oceans seemed to think there was nothing to worry about: “Right now we are working with the First Nations communities to determine what a moderate livelihood fishery looks like. We’re continuing to have those meetings with them.”

That was in early September. During the ensuing month, nothing was achieved. The Sipekne’katik First Nation community began an out-of-season fishery at the beginning of October, issuing their own license tags.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans had plenty of warning that this was coming but did not have a game plan. They did nothing. (Bizarrely, this week they confiscated traps from the Potlotek and Eskasoni Mi’kmaw communities doing the same thing as the Sipekne’katik.)

Non-indigenous fishers protested, not always peacefully. Lobster traps were cut. There was an assault on chief Michael Sack, and two involved processing facilities were torched. That was widely condemned, including by representatives of commercial fishers.

The Minister’s position is that the continuing talks about the modest livelihood fishery are Nation to Nation talks so the non-indigenous fishers should not have a seat at the table. She has also said that it is for the Sipekne’katik first nation to define what a modest living fishery looks like.

It would have to define, among other things, the size and number of traps a fisher can use, the season during which they could be deployed, how many fishers can have one of the licenses, and whether they would have to work them personally or could rent them out.

The original government response to the Marshall decision was to buy $540 million worth of commercial fishing licenses and give them to First Nations bands, along with other start-up support. First Nations, representing less than 3% of the population of Nova Scotia, now own more than 10% of licenses in the Maritimes. How does that count toward the modest living fishery entitlement?

The lobster fishery is a success because harvesting is limited. That is achieved by limiting the number of licenses and the seasons during which they can be exercised. An addition to current licenses will threaten the viability of stocks unless matched by corresponding reductions in existing rights.

No wonder the non-indigenous fishers are upset. Their livelihoods are at stake and they are excluded from the conversation.

There is broad agreement that the acts of violence are wrong. That the Marshall decision affirmed Mi’kmaq rights to a moderate-income fishery is uncontested. Mi’kmaq and non-indigenous fishers agree that the combined fisheries must be managed in a way that keeps both of them sustainable.

They also agree, together with opposition politicians and Premier McNeil, that the root cause of the problem is federal government inaction.

So far, what we have heard is Minister of Indigenous Services Marc Miller criticizing the RCMP, and Minister Jordan, echoed by Trudeau, calling for calm. They are supposed to be leading, not offering commentary from the bleachers.

The issues in play are not easily reconciled. They need a thoughtful federal process that acknowledges the difficulty and engages all the affected parties. To date, that has been conspicuously absent.


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