National Chief Bellegarde urges Ottawa to rethink Mi'kmaq fisheries decision

·5 min read
Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde wrote to the prime minister on Thursday expressing concerns over the federal government's decision to restrict when moderate livelihood fisheries in Atlantic Canada can operate. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde wrote to the prime minister on Thursday expressing concerns over the federal government's decision to restrict when moderate livelihood fisheries in Atlantic Canada can operate. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press - image credit)

The national chief of the Assembly of First Nations is demanding the federal government restart talks on the Mi'kmaq fishery in Nova Scotia after the Department of Fisheries (DFO) announced it will not issue fishing licences to First Nations in Atlantic Canada outside of the commercial season.

In a letter sent to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Thursday, National Chief Perry Bellegarde expressed outrage over DFO's recent decision, which sides with a key demand from the commercial fishing industry.

"I urge you and the entire federal cabinet to reconsider this mandate and to return to good-faith negotiations," Bellegarde wrote in a letter obtained by CBC News.

"It is only through continued peaceful negotiations that your government will reach agreements with First Nations on a nation-to-nation basis."

On Wednesday, federal Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan released a plan outlining conditions for Indigenous lobster fishermen to participate in moderate livelihood fisheries during commercial seasons.

Indigenous fishermen in Nova Scotia argue that a 1999 Supreme Court of Canada decision affirms the Mi'kmaq treaty right to fish for a so-called "moderate livelihood'' when and where they want — even outside the federally regulated commercial fishing season.

A dispute over treaty rights-based fishing sparked violence last fall when the Sipekne'katik First Nation launched its own self-regulated 'moderate livelihood' lobster fishery in St. Mary's Bay, N.S., outside of the commercial season. The move sparked backlash from some fishermen, who called it unfair and bad for conservation.

Several other First Nations in the East Coast followed Sipekne'katik by launching their own moderate fisheries citing the 1999 Supreme Court decision.

These men are on opposite sides of the dispute over the Mi’kmaw lobster fishery. On the left, a commercial fisherman with an Acadian flag, on the right a supporter of Sipekne’katik’s new rights-based fishery, holding the Mi’kmaw flag
These men are on opposite sides of the dispute over the Mi’kmaw lobster fishery. On the left, a commercial fisherman with an Acadian flag, on the right a supporter of Sipekne’katik’s new rights-based fishery, holding the Mi’kmaw flag(Taryn Grant/CBC)

That ruling affirmed the right of the Mi'kmaq to earn a "moderate livelihood" from fishing, but did not define the term. The high court later said the federal government could regulate that fishery, but must justify any restrictions. Jordan cited that ruling to explain her authority.

"The Supreme Court clearly stated 'treaty rights are subject to regulation provided such regulation is shown by the Crown to be justified on conservation or other grounds of public importance,'" Jordan wrote in a statement.

Ottawa imposed policy, says chief

Bellegarde said Jordan has "badly mismanaged'' the file and should formally withdraw her statement. "The heavy handedness by Minister Jordan was uncalled for," Bellegarde wrote.

He accused the government of failing to meaningfully consult with the Mi'kmaq by imposing a policy on First Nations. And he described the DFO's statement that it would follow with increased federal enforcement on the water "overtly hostile actions."

Bellegarde wrote the move was contrary to the government's public commitments to uphold the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), which affirms the rights of Indigenous Peoples to self-determination and to their language, culture and traditional lands.

The Liberal government has introduced legislation that will begin the process of bringing Canadian law into alignment with the declaration.

Sen. Brian Francis of Prince Edward Island issued a statement on Thursday saying Jordan's decision would do little to heal and repair the relationship between Canada and Indigenous peoples.

"It will also not reduce the potential for hostility or even violence against the Mi'kmaq but rather increase the surveillance and policing of our fishers and communities," Francis wrote.

"I am left deeply troubled and concerned that the Mi'kmaq and/or other First Nations will be forced to once again resort to the courts to ensure our rights are honoured. That, to me, is not how we achieve real reconciliation."

WATCH | Ottawa says 'moderate livelihood' fishery must use commercial season:

Francis also expressed disappointment that Jordan dismissed an attempt by him and two other Mi'kmaw parliamentarians — Sen. Dan Christmas and Liberal MP Jaime Battiste — to work together on a solution. Last fall, the parliamentarians recommended Jordan create an Atlantic First Nations Fishing Authority to advance and protect treaty rights, which Jordan indicated she was open to exploring.

DFO offering pathway to sell lobster

The federal government is still working with First Nations to develop moderate livelihood fishing plans.

DFO is offering Indigenous fishermen in Nova Scotia a pathway to sell lobster harvested in a moderate livelihood fishery. Right now, that catch does not have DFO's stamp of approval. Without authorization, they can't legally sell their catch to licenced buyers, such as lobster pounds and processors.

Communities that accept DFO's proposal will receive a moderate livelihood licence that will allow them to sell catch this season. Under provincial rules, only fish products harvested under federal commercial licences can be purchased by shore processors.

The Sipekne'katik First Nation launched its own Mi'kmaw-regulated, rights-based lobster fishery last fall in St. Mary's Bay, about 250 kilometres west of Halifax, during the off season.
The Sipekne'katik First Nation launched its own Mi'kmaw-regulated, rights-based lobster fishery last fall in St. Mary's Bay, about 250 kilometres west of Halifax, during the off season.(Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

The federal government "will balance additional First Nations access through already available licences and a willing buyer-willing seller approach, protecting ... Stocks and preserving the industry for generations to come," Jordan's statement said.

Ottawa has already spent half a billion dollars integrating Indigenous bands into the commercial fishery through licence buy-backs and training, but it never defined moderate livelihood.

Sipekne'katik Chief Mike Sack urged Mi'kmaw bands in Atlantic Canada to reject Ottawa's position and said his community's fishery will continue to operate outside DFO seasons.

"They're trying to divide and conquer and throw a carrot to a band or two and have them sign and just hurt everybody's case," Sack said.

"I hope that no other communities do sign."