Mi'kmaw fishers looking for action, not words, from MPs on lobster dispute

·5 min read

Some Mi'kmaw lobster harvesters in Nova Scotia say they're paying more attention to the tides than to politicians in Ottawa debating their fishery.

"I watched a bit," said Garrett Michael of Sipekne'katik First Nation about Monday's emergency parliamentary debate, "but we were going out fishing at the same time."

Michael has been fishing in St. Mary's Bay under a Mi'kmaw-regulated licence. He estimates he and his crew have lost up to 100 lobster traps to opposing fishers from nearby Nova Scotian communities since the First Nation's fishery launched in September. Opposition to the fishery by commercial, non-Indigenous fishermen has led to sometimes violent clashes and a suspicious fire at a lobster pound used by some Mi'kmaw fishers.

Arvin Knockwood of Sipekne'katik, one of Michael's crew who also tuned into the debate, said he's waiting for more from politicians than just dialogue.

"I pay attention, because it affects us all," Knockwood said.

"Until they actually do something, stop the other guys or actually protect us for once, they can talk all they want. Their actions would speak louder, I'd say."

Nic Meloney/CBC
Nic Meloney/CBC

Knockwood has been fishing lobster in the commercial industry for more than two years, and says he's confident he'll continue to harvest under the new fishery with or without permission from the federal government.

"They can't take away our treaty right," he said.

"We're going to keep practising it until they recognize it and enforce it. We're going to keep doing what we're doing."

Sipekne'katik Chief Mike Sack echoed that sentiment, telling reporters Tuesday that the First Nation will "keep working through it, regardless of what happens in Parliament."

"I watched some of it, and there was some great dialogue," Sack said of the debate, adding he thought it was "unfortunate" that some members of Parliament shared inaccurate information about the health of the fishery, and that they do not respect treaty rights. He did not provide the names of the MPs he was referring to.

Nic Meloney/CBC
Nic Meloney/CBC

'Red herring' in the lobster debate

Parliamentarians spoke often of the Marshall decision — the Supreme Court case that affirmed the Mi'kmaw right to earn a "moderate livelihood" by fishing and selling their catch — and repeatedly expressed concerns over the lack of clarity on what a "moderate livelihood" should mean.

Bruce Wildsmith, Donald Marshall Jr.'s lawyer in the landmark case, said the debate revealed that there is still a cloud of uncertainty surrounding the issue in Ottawa.

"I think they're not providing enough transparency to the Mi'kmaw community about where they're trying to take this and why it's any different than where they've taken it in New Brunswick," said Wildsmith.

The Mi'kmaw communities of Elsipogtog and Esgenoôpetitj in New Brunswick settled moderate livelihood negotiations in August.

Wildsmith said the Mi'kmaq must be allowed to fish unhindered before governments can pin down the actual value of the fishery, so he takes issue with the politicians' focus on determining a dollar value for the living salary a harvester has the right to make on the water.

"It's a little bit of a red herring," he said.

"What is clear is that the Mi'kmaw fishers are not getting wealthy. They're not reaching the commercial level. The idea of coming up with a number at this point in time is premature."

Wildsmith said the debate signalled some momentum that may lead to "a major step forward" for the implementation of the Mi'kmaw treaty right, but that he wasn't confident the federal government will diverge from years of similar debates.

"I'm hesitant to put it this way, but it takes a crisis to move the government," he said.

"Successive governments for 21 years have said, 'We'll talk, we'll talk, we'll talk,' and there's no urgency to get to a resolution."

Fishery will 'open doors'

Prior to the Marshall decision in 1999, and since, Mi'kmaw harvester Alexander McDonald of Sipekne'katik has been on the front lines of the dispute. He began working in the lobster industry as a teenager, and has been involved in most of the fishing disputes involving Mi'kmaw harvesters in the region.

"I was watching [the emergency debate] and I found that there was a lot of truth in some of the things that were being said," he said.

"But then, there were a lot of biased opinions in the way they said it."

McDonald holds one of Sipekne'katik's "moderate livelihood" licences and is currently working in another lobster fishing area under a commercial licence. He said he thinks most Mi'kmaw fishers on the water are tired of hearing their rights debated by non-Indigenous peoples and politicians.

"You got to remember there's a lot of prejudice, a lot of 'cowboys and Indians' here and right across Canada," he said.

There is a silver lining in having the issue debated in Parliament and "at least looked at" by the federal government, McDonald said, because it may result in better access to fishing and a steady livelihood for the upcoming generation.

"A lot of our young people are more ambitious, better educated, and they want to fish. They want to get out there and they want to make a living," he said.

"They're being very responsible and this is a very positive thing, and it's going to open a lot of doors."