MPs issue conflicting reports on contentious First Nations fishery

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Sipekne'katik First Nation Chief Michael Sack, right, is shown at the wharf in Saulnierville, N.S., after the band launched it's self-regulated fishery last fall. (Paul Withers/CBC - image credit)
Sipekne'katik First Nation Chief Michael Sack, right, is shown at the wharf in Saulnierville, N.S., after the band launched it's self-regulated fishery last fall. (Paul Withers/CBC - image credit)

Canadian parliamentarians issued dissenting reports Thursday on implementing First Nations moderate livelihood fisheries in the Maritimes and Quebec.

The fisheries and oceans committee report released by the Liberals makes 40 recommendations and supports positions taken by various sides in the contentious dispute: upholding the fisheries minister's ultimate authority to regulate the fishery while urging Ottawa to consider sharing management and decision-making with First Nations.

It calls for greater consultation and co-operation between First Nations, commercial fishermen and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

The report also calls on DFO to address "systemic racism" within the department and reform its enforcement arm, the conservation and protection branch, "to address systemic racism within their regulations and operational policies to provide protection for treaty right to harvest and sell fish."

Moderate livelihood fisheries launched

MPs held hearings after the Sipekne'katik band launched the first self-regulated lobster fishery in Nova Scotia last fall. The band said it would no longer wait for the federal government to authorize a moderate livelihood fishery, which was recognized — but not defined — by the Supreme of Canada in the 1999 Marshall decisions.

What followed were sometimes violent protests by some commercial fishermen and their supporters who bitterly opposed commercial lobster harvesting when the federally mandated season was closed.

Nova Scotia Liberal MP Jamie Battiste, a Mi'kmaw member of the committee who tabled the report, said the most important recommendations concern education about treaty rights.

"The ones that I hope government takes into consideration is really the notions around creating more treaty education, more willingness to do what we can to address the systemic racism within the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, but also the ability to create the capacity to safely and without fear of harm, to be a part of a moderate livelihood fisheries that is transparent and accountable to all, including their community members," he told CBC News.

The dissenting reports

Although all parties supported the right to a moderate livelihood fishery, the committee was not unanimous. Both the Conservatives and Bloc Quebecois issued dissenting reports.

The Conservatives consider moderate livelihood fishing a commercial enterprise and subject to the same regulations, including seasons, as all commercial fisheries, with enforcement and regulation unambiguously under the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

The Bloc called for co-management.

The office of federal Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan issued a statement Thursday that said it had received the report that morning and "look forward to reviewing its recommendations closely."

In March, Jordan said the department was prepared to issue moderate livelihood licences to bands this year but the fishery must take place within existing commercial seasons. Indigenous communities quickly rejected the approach.

Committee does not define moderate livelihood

The committee report tabled in Parliament does not define moderate livelihood nor does it weigh in on efforts by successive federal governments to respond to the Marshall decision.

Those included spending hundreds of millions of dollars integrating First Nations into the commercial fishery through training and buying back commercial fishing licences.

"Although DFO has initiated programs to bolster First Nation participation in commercial fisheries since the Marshall decisions, there is so far no consensus regarding whether the Mi'kmaq and the Wolastoqiyik (Maliseet) treaty right to fish in pursuit of a moderate livelihood has been effectively and meaningfully implemented," the report said.

The Supreme Court also found the fisheries minister has the authority to regulate for conservation and compelling public interest reasons.

"In any agreement with First Nations, only the Minister can be the regulator and the regulatory authority if we are to comply with the Court," the report said.

Surette report also issued

At the height of protests in southwest Nova Scotia last fall, DFO appointed Université Sainte-Anne president Allister Surette as a "federal representative" to try and rebuild trust between Indigenous and commercial harvesters.

In his final report, quietly released last week, Surette also calls for more dialogue and trust-building between the sides.

But his assessment remains bleak.

"These divergent interpretations and understandings of the court decisions and entrenched positions have resulted in much controversy, tensions, and disagreements amongst the parties involved. Hence, the difficulty in bringing all parties together," he said.