Ottawa wants Indigenous livelihood fisheries in N.S. part of commercial season

·3 min read

HALIFAX — Federal Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan released a plan Wednesday outlining conditions for Indigenous lobster fishers to participate in moderate livelihood fisheries during commercial seasons.

The Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaw Chiefs, however, said Ottawa's latest overture is "unacceptable."

Jordan said her plan would allow moderate livelihood fishing activity during the commercial, federally regulated season, through licences issued under the Fisheries Act. She said her idea wouldn't increase the total amount of fishing conducted in the country's waters.

"I need to make sure the stocks are health and sustainable," she said in an interview Wednesday. "And we have the seasons for that purpose: to make sure that this is orderly, it's regulated and it does meet our conservation objectives."

The plan would also allow First Nations communities to sell moderate livelihood catches to processors, which is currently illegal under Nova Scotia regulations.

"The difference is we are now authorizing a moderate livelihood fishery, which is completely separate from a commercial fishery," Jordan said. She said the plan — which she said can be long-term or yearly — can be used while First Nations communities and the government negotiate an overarching Rights Reconciliation Agreement on Indigenous fishing rights.

She said there are a number of banked licences that can be used to give access to First Nations communities, adding that she hopes there can be some voluntary buyouts of existing commercial licences. The Fisheries Department, she said, will work with First Nations communities to develop moderate livelihood fishing plans that could be unique to each community.

The minister said the interim plan is a "path" that is "flexible and adaptable" and is based in the implementation of First Nations treaty rights, the conservation and sustainability of fish stocks, and transparent management of the fishery.

The Sipekne'katik and Potlotek First Nations have launched lawsuits against the Nova Scotia government, with both saying existing regulations interfere with their treaty right to fish in pursuit of a moderate livelihood.

Indigenous fishers in Nova Scotia argue that a 1999 Supreme Court of Canada decision affirms the Mi'kmaq treaty right to fish for a "moderate livelihood'' when and where they want — even outside the federally regulated commercial fishing season. That decision was later clarified by the court, however, which said Ottawa could regulate the Mi'kmaq treaty right for conservation and other limited purposes.

Sipekne'katik Chief Mike Sack said his band is not impressed with the government's new plan. The First Nation launched its own moderate livelihood fishery last fall in St. Mary's Bay, outside of the federally regulated season.

Members of the band encountered violence from non-Indigenous residents that resulted in the destruction of a lobster pound and the burning of a band member's van.

Sack said it was "kind of the same old stuff" when asked about Jordan's plan. "We are strongly for not having the department issue our licences and we want to exercise our right and have our own season," he said. "It's way off the mark."

Sack said Sipekne'katik plans to go ahead with its own fishery this spring, likely in June.

Meanwhile, the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi'kmaw Chiefs said in a news release on Wednesday the plan by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans was "unacceptable."

"Minister Bernadette Jordan ... has also made unilateral decisions and asserted a position ... having full control over our Rights-based fishery. This is unacceptable.

"DFO is continuing to impose rules without consultation with, accommodation of, or agreement with, the Assembly."

Gordon Beaton, president of Local 4 of the Maritime Fishermen's Union, said commercial fishers are open to allowing First Nations participation as long as any agreement adheres to three primary pillars: in-season fishing only, no overall increased fishing, and the same basic rules for all fishers.

"If there is some different kind of access, the industry has no problem with that as long as it's under the same rules," Beaton said. "As always, it will be what's in the (plan's) details."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 3, 2021.

Keith Doucette, The Canadian Press