Canada's Minister of Fisheries and Oceans is downplaying plans by Nova Scotia Mi'kmaq to create their own moderate livelihood fishery, characterizing the move as part of ongoing negotiations to implement a 21-year-old Supreme Court ruling.
"Right now we are working with the First Nations communities to determine what a moderate livelihood fishery looks like. We're continuing to have those meetings with them," Bernadette Jordan, the department's minister, told CBC News.
"It's a negotiation process. They have things that they want to see. We have things that we'd like to see."
Jordan, the Liberal MP for Nova Scotia's South Shore-St. Margarets riding, would not say whether her government will accept a First Nations commercial fishery that operates outside commercial fishing seasons regulated by DFO.
Kwilmu'kw Maw-klusuaqn, also known as the Mi'kmaq Rights Initiative, negotiates on behalf of chiefs. "This is all something that has to be hammered out with the bands, with the KMK," Jordan said.
The 1999 Marshall decision recognized the First Nations right to earn a moderate living from fishing but with an important limitation: the federal government retains the authority to regulate that fishery in the public interest and for conservation.
Two decades later there is still no agreement on the rules for a moderate livelihood fishery and now Mi'kmaq leaders — blaming Ottawa for the impasse — are preparing to move ahead on their own.
"We are developing our own sustainable livelihood fishery, separate from the commercial fishery, as we have a responsibility to protect our affirmed treaty right, and the court ruling," said Membertou chief Terry Paul in a statement Wednesday on behalf of the Assembly of Mi'kmaq chiefs
The statement says under direction from chiefs, KMK's negotiation team has been "working alongside communities to support their development of sustainable community livelihood fishery management plans unique to their community, while respecting the set of guiding principles reached by consensus by the assembly."
The most recent community meeting was held last week by members of the Potlotek First Nation in Cape Breton.
Deals secured with three bands
The Trudeau government has managed to get moderate livelihood deals with three bands; one in Quebec and two in New Brunswick.
Jordan said another rights and reconciliation agreement, as they are known, is near in New Brunswick, but no deals in Nova Scotia are close, despite optimism earlier in 2020.
A further complication is that Mi'kmaq are not totally united.
"There are some bands who have reached out to us on an individual basis who, you know, maybe want to find agreements and ways forward outside the KMK," Jordan said.
Jordan is also facing pressure from the fishing industry upset that First Nations fishermen in Nova Scotia are selling lobster harvested out of season under the cloak of a communal fishery.
Licences for a food, social and ceremonial fishery are issued by bands and a condition of licence prohibits the sale of the catch.
But that is openly flouted in St Mary's Bay each summer by Indigenous harvesters, who like their leaders point to the Marshall decision while ignoring the court recognised right of government to regulate the fishery.
Commercial fishing revenues on the rise
Commercial fishing revenue within individual bands has actually exploded since the Marshall decision.
Canada has spent $545 million to promote integration of Atlantic First Nations into the commercial fisheries, mostly to buy commercial licences for individual bands and to pay for training.
The impact has been dramatic.
In an assessment published last fall on the 20th anniversary of the Marshall decision, the Macdonald Laurier Institute estimated on-reserve revenues in the Atlantic region increased from $3 million to $152 million in 2016.
No better indication of growing clout came this week from none other than Chief Terry Paul in Membertou.
This week Membertou announced it will spend $25-million to buy two offshore lobster licences from Clearwater Seafoods.
MORE TOP STORIES