Way More Than A Lobster Catch: Concerning The Livelihood Of First Nations And Non-Indigenous Fishers In Eastern Canada

Eastern Canada has been battered by an array of protests and hate crimes this past month following the launch of the Sipekne’katik First Nations’ own self-regulated fishery. Non-Indigenous fishers are angered by the move, saying that the communal Indigenous fishery is illegal and allege it is being used as a cover for a large-scale commercial fishery.

Fighting between First Nations and non-indigenous peoples in the region dates back to a 1999 Supreme Court decision involving the case of a Mi’kmaq man, Donald Marshall Jr, who had caught and sold 210 kilograms of eel without a license and outside the federally regulated season. His case was argued using the 1760-61 treaty rights laid down by British and First Nations peoples which gave Mi’kmaq, Wolastoqiyik and Passamaquoddy peoples the right to hunt, fish and earn a reasonable living without interference from the Crown. The court ruled that because these treaty rights were never legally rescinded, the peoples’ Mi’kmaq, Wolastoqiyik and Passamaquoddy still possess this right to hunt, fish and gather to earn a “moderate livelihood” without interference from government.

Days after the 1999 court ruling, Mi’kmaq began to harvest lobster outside the regulatory season. This angered many non-Indigenous peoples in these areas who still had to observe strict commercial fishing laws set by the government. The West Nova Fisherman’s Coalition intervened in an appeal of the Marshall Decision. Two months later the court ruled that federal and provincial governments did in fact have the authority to regulate treaty rights if there was concern over conservation, assuming the government first consulted with First Nations Peoples and could justify those concerns.

Tensions in the region have flared up again over the establishment of a First Nations moderate livelihood lobster fishery on St. Mary’s Bay. Over the past few weeks, the Mi’kmaq community has been victim to suspicious fires that have upended operations at this new fishery. The most recent attack took place last Friday, where a fire ravaged a lobster holding pound in Middle West Pubnico, one of two buildings Mi’kmaq fishermen use to store their lobster catch.

The RCMP has been criticized for its inaction in the recent attacks. “You swore an oath to uphold the law and protect the people? So why is it that the law has been broken multiple times and no one is arrested?” said Sipekne’katik fisherman Robert Syliboy, whose boat was burned last week at a wharf near the Indigenous fishery.

Blame has also been placed on Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) for its failure to include non-Indigenous fishers in discussions to address their frustrations and settle disputes with the Mi’kmaq peoples over their fishery. A peaceful resolution to the ongoing crisis now figures as a passing hope as relations between indigenous and non-indigenous fishermen reach a breaking point. The government has been slow to respond to the issue and mixed messages have been conveyed over the rights of the Mi’kmaq peoples to operate a fishery outside the federally regulated period.

Over the last 20 years since the Marshall ruling, there has been rapid growth of Indigenous engagement in the fisheries sector. Non-indigenous fishermen fear that any further expansion of First Nations fishing would threaten their business, their communities and livelihoods. The commercial industry has said its issues are not with the Indigenous fishers but with the DFO for its handling of the situation and permitting the fishery to operate out-of-season. They also fear that fishing operations happening outside of the season will disrupt lobster breeding and moulting, even as Mi’kmaq have said the fishery operates as a sustainable livelihood fishery. Robert Steneck, professor of oceanography at The University of Maine’s School of Marine Sciences, has also said that off season fishing for a small fishery like Sipekne’katik First Nations would have negligible impact on the total lobster population.

Conversations which have taken place between the DFO and Mi’kmaq peoples surround their vision of a moderate livelihood fishery, but so far nothing has been determined, and continued silence will only increase the already mounting tensions between First Nations and non-indigenous fishermen. To move beyond the impasse and forge a way forward, governments have to start listening to the concerns and hopes of both sides.

Many commercial fishermen condemn the violence against First Nations, but still want the government to step in and enforce off-season regulations. For Mi’kmaq, the issue comes down to their rights and the government’s failure to clarify and protect those rights. In order to settle disputes and achieve peace in the area, governments and First Nations need to agree on modern peace treaty which resolves the question of what moderate livelihood entails and sanctions the activity of off-season lobster fishing in the name of this pursuit for Indigenous communities. The government would also need to respond to the negative impacts this could have on commercial fisheries and include these fishermen in discussions about the best way forward.

Yesterday, the government announced its plans to increase police presence in the region for the upcoming weekend. While this may suppress violence (hopefully), this kind of deter-and-delay tactic can create an atmosphere of anticipation and mistrust that mobilizes the kind of violence it seeks to disrupt.

It’s for the sake of all communities in this small Atlantic region that the government needs to act fast to implement discussions with First Nations and non-Indigenous peoples and stand firm in their support of Indigenous fishing rights. Alongside that, the right to hunt and gather—which is a central part of both groups’ way of life—will need to be addressed, and the government must confirm its readiness to support the livelihood and wellbeing of both communities. After 21 years of silence, let’s hope our leaders are ready.