First Nations Fishing Rights Are Best Realized Through Cooperation, Not Conflict

The Bear River First Nation together with the Annapolis Valley and Acadia bands occupy the Kespu’kwitk district. They assume and exercise resource stewardship responsibilities over their part of southwest Nova Scotia. They are paying a price for being reasonable and responsible.

Late last month, Bear River Chief Carol Dee Potter outlined their perspective on the lobster fishery in a letter sent to the Minister of Fisheries, Oceans (DFO) and the Canadian Coast Guard, Bernadette Jordan, Sipekne’katik Chief Michael Sack, and other First Nations Chiefs.

The Bear River band has been fishing in St. Mary’s Bay for as long back as people can remember. They fish for both communal commercial and food, social, and ceremonial purposes. In doing so, they pursue cooperative relationships with both DFO and non-indigenous fishers.

At the beginning of October, Sipekne’katik Chief Mike Sack announced that his band, headquartered more than 300 kilometres away near Stewiacke, would begin a moderate livelihood fishery, unlicensed by DFO in St. Mary’s Bay, after failing to reach an agreement with DFO during the preceding weeks. They issued their own permit tags to band members who proceeded to place traps in the Bay.

DFO did not interfere, which angered many non-indigenous fishers. They cut or damaged many of the traps that did not have government tags. There were also efforts to intimidate the Sipekne’katik fishers and two lobster pounds were set on fire. Chief Sack sought and received a temporary court injunction to end blockades, interference, and threats against band members.

Meanwhile, fishers from the Potlotek and Eskasoni bands unilaterally began their own moderate livelihood fishery in northern Nova Scotia but in their case, the DFO officers confiscated many of the traps.

Chief Sack says that, while DFO is acting against other First Nations, they have not interfered with the Sipekne’katik moderate livelihood traps.

The Minister’s office was asked to confirm the difference in treatment together with an explanation for why. The letter also asked when the Minister’s most recent contacts with both First Nations and non-indigenous fishers occurred. Here is the reply:

“The primary focus for all C&P (conservation and protection) officers is to protect Canada’s fish and seafood stocks, working directly with local harvesters and communities on this shared priority. The enforcement measures they apply vary in each circumstance; however, their goal remains the same–ensuring sustainable, orderly fisheries.

There have been C&P operations in both areas over the past weeks and months.

Both First Nations and commercial industry leaders have had consistent access to the Minister and DFO officials to discuss their concerns.”

Discerning readers will notice that this text is entirely free of content that responds to the questions.

Bear River Chief Potter’s letter reports that her fishers operating within the law were forced out of St. Mary’s Bay due to the ongoing dispute. She notes that prior to the recent events, neither the Minister nor DFO officials nor representatives of Sipekne’katik First Nation reached out to the Bear River First Nation.

She asserts that the Marshall decision confirmed rights to a moderate livelihood fishery but stresses that with those rights come responsibilities for all parties to work with DFO on a co-management process that ensures sound resource management.

Chief Sack has a different perspective. He does not agree that he had to consult any of the other First Nations groups and argues that any Mi’kmaw First Nation that wanted to could establish a moderate livelihood fishery in Saint Mary’s Bay or anywhere else it wanted to in Nova Scotia.

Protecting the resource requires collective controls on the number and timing of traps being deployed. Chief Sack wants every group to make up their own rules. This a recipe for conflict not only with non-indigenous fishers but also between First Nations.

Chief Potter’s letter concludes with these words “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.”

Her complaint is entirely justified, and her sensible stance should be publicly embraced by the Minister.


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