HALIFAX — The chief of the First Nation at the centre of a lobster fishing dispute in Nova Scotia says the federal fisheries minister should resign because she appears unwilling to deal with the band's challenges.
Chief Mike Sack of the Sipekne'katik First Nation said Wednesday he hasn't heard from Bernadette Jordan for a week, despite his best efforts to set up a meeting with her.
"If they want to break off talks with us, then we'll take alternative routes," Sack said in an interview. "If the minister is not willing to work with us, then maybe she should step down if she's not capable of doing the job."
First Nations in the Maritimes and eastern Quebec say a 1999 Supreme Court of Canada ruling affirmed their right to hunt, fish and gather when and where they want to earn a "moderate livelihood." But a subsequent clarification from the court said Ottawa retains the right to regulate the fisheries for conservation purposes.
Non-Indigenous lobster fishers have complained that the band's self-regulated fishery in St. Marys Bay is illegal and should be shut down because the federally regulated lobster season in the area does not open until Nov. 30.
Meanwhile, Sack said he was frustrated by reports that federal fisheries officers have removed lobster traps from a bay in Cape Breton, where the Potlotek First Nation started its own moderate livelihood fishery on Oct. 1.
"It annoys me when the (Department of Fisheries and Oceans) in Cape Breton is hauling out our brothers' and sisters' traps," Sack said. "They started doing that after they stopped answering the phone for us."
The chief also said he is concerned that Jordan, who represents a riding in southwestern Nova Scotia, may be giving in to pressure from the commercial lobster fishing industry.
"I feel that someone else should be looking after the fisheries," he said.
At a meeting of the House of Commons fisheries committee later Wednesday, Jordan did not directly address Sack's call for her to resign. But she repeatedly urged patience in resolving the dispute and the broader issue of defining what moderate livelihood means.
"There are no quick and easy solutions," she said. "This takes time and patience and there will be challenges along the way."
Jordan argued that it's a delicate balancing act that requires nation-to-nation negotiations, with each First Nation having its own view of what constitutes a moderate livelihood, while also listening to the concerns of commercial fishers about the potential depletion of stocks.
New Brunswick MP John Williamson pressed Jordan to say whether she believes Indigenous fishers should be allowed to set their own fishing seasons, outside of those set by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. She would not give a direct answer.
"I will say that I have heard very loudly and clearly from commercial harvesters around their concerns. Conservation will always be what underpins everything we do at DFO," she said.
She accused Williamson of putting words in her mouth when he suggested her refusal to give a direct answer means she's open to separate Indigenous fisheries seasons.
West Nova Conservative MP Chris d'Entremont, whose riding includes St. Marys Bay, called the out-of-season Indigenous lobster fishing "illegal" and accused Sack of issuing "threats" against anyone who disagrees with him, including Jordan.
D'Entremont also raised a Facebook post by Sack in which he alleged the chief is trying to recruit "warriors" to disrupt the commercial lobster fishery in a vast zone known as Lobster Fishing Area 34, which opens for fishing on Nov. 30.
Jordan referred that issue to DFO official Doug Wetzell, who told the committee, "We take any and all threats to orderly fisheries very, very seriously."
"Given the current environment, we continue to be concerned ... for the safety of all harvesters."
Wetzell said DFO is working closely with the RCMP, individual port authorities and Indigneous and non-Indigenous commercial harvesters to ensure the safety of everyone.
"It's going to be through open dialogue that we move this forward, not through violent or disruptive acts," he added.
But Sack shrugged off allegations that he's trying to foment disruption of the commercial lobster fishery in area 34.
He said he wants federal fisheries officers to stop the fishing because the Mi'kmaq of Nova Scotia never consented to the commercial fishery in the first place.
"If they prevent us from fishing, they should prevent them from fishing," he said. "We're looking to put this to rest. If our talks don't go the way they're supposed to, then we'll be looking at alternative solutions."
Earlier in the day, Sack issued a statement confirming the Sipekne'katik band had landed 100,000 pounds of lobster since it started its moderate livelihood fishery on Sept. 17 in St. Marys Bay, which is part of Lobster Fishing Area 34. That represents a tiny fraction of what commercial fishing boats will haul in from the zone.
A total of 990 licensed commercial fishing boats working in LFA 34 are expected to trap 90 million pounds of lobster between Nov. 30 and May 31, with each boat carrying between 375 and 400 traps.
The chief said the numbers make it clear that the band's moderate livelihood fishery does not pose a threat to conservation of lobster stocks.
"I want people to know that what we caught is equivalent to what one commercial licence is going to catch, and there's 990 going to be out there fishing in a couple of weeks time," he said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 18, 2020
Michael MacDonald, The Canadian Press