The Lennox Island First Nation says it will be launching a treaty lobster fishery off P.E.I.'s North Shore next week with or without the federal government's support.
The First Nation has a clear treaty right to harvest lobster for a moderate livelihood without the federal government's approval — a right affirmed by the Supreme Court of Canada in the 1999 Marshall ruling.
But in a rare clarification from Canada's highest court that same year, it was determined the federal government could in fact still regulate the Mi'kmaw fishers if there were concerns about conservation, providing there was consultation with the First Nations groups and the government could justify its concerns.
The community had said in 2020 that it wanted to start such a fishery, but chose to first negotiate with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans on specific conditions that would be put in place.
Chief Darlene Bernard told CBC News Thursday that the community has waited long enough, and so Lennox Island has created its own management plan. It includes:
A maximum of 1,000 traps being put out for the year.
A timeframe that falls within the commercial season, using the community's own wharf and infrastructure.
Respect for DFO rules with regard to trap size and conservation measures.
"I'm hoping that our people will go out there and fish, and then it'll prove that we're not going to hurt anybody, you know, because I think that there's a misconception that a thousand traps is going to hurt other fishermen," Bernard said.
"There's no conservation concerns. None were raised to us by DFO."
Bernard said the community sent the plan to the DFO last week, but has not heard back.
"We've been kept out of this resource for 300 years.... We fished this bay for hundreds and hundreds of years. It's how we sustained ourselves," she said.
"We need to get back to that. We want to be a part of it. We just want to have a fair shake."
The First Nation intends to launch the treaty fishery on Saturday, May 7, weather permitting.
About 25 people from Lennox Island already harvest lobster as part of the commercial fishery, set to open early in the week of May 2, as long as the weather and ocean conditions are favourable.
We support a modest approach to a livelihood fishery. That's our right. - Chief Darlene Bernard, Lennox Island First Nation
Bernard told CBC News that if there is any violence on the water aimed at Lennox Island treaty fishers, the band will consider DFO to be responsible.
"I don't understand why we can't get the support of DFO in our fishery here when it's very reflective of the same agreements that they have in Nova Scotia," Bernard said.
Fishery may be subject to enforcement
On Thursday evening, Fisheries and Oceans Canada told CBC News in a statement that it has been in ongoing discussions with L'nuey over the last few months, in the hopes of reaching an understanding that would see Lennox Island First Nation conduct an 'authorized moderate livelihood lobster fishery' within the established DFO season this spring, but an understanding has not yet been reached.
"Much progress has been made over the years, working with Lennox Island First Nation through the Marshall Response Initiative and other programs, which have seen this community grow its fishing enterprises, and benefit economically from these fisheries," the statement read.
"The Department's priority continues to be the further implementation of treaty rights in a way that aligns with conservation objectives and supports a safe, orderly and peaceful fishery. We firmly believe that respectful, constructive dialogue is the way to achieve this."
The livelihood fishing activity is unauthorized "and may be subject to enforcement action," DFO's statement said.
Bernard said she believes the lack of co-operation from the department is what will lead to unrest.
"We support a modest approach to a livelihood fishery. That's our right. That's all ... If DFO could support our plan, then there should be no conflict."
In a message sent to the community, Bernard warned of the risk for community members in the fishery, including possible trap seizures and fines.
In Nova Scotia, several First Nations have struck deals with the department for such fisheries, including Potlotek, Bear River, Annapolis Valley and Acadia First Nations. Bernard said they have modelled their treaty fishery plan off of these agreements and trap allotments.
"It's time that we become bigger players in the industries and things that are from our natural resources, from our unceded territory," Bernard said.
PEIFA 'strongly opposes' conflict of any type
Bernard said that representatives from Lennox Island met with the P.E.I. Fishermen's Association earlier this week to share details of the plan.
On Thursday afternoon, the association issued a written release, calling it "unfortunate" that discussions between the federal government, non-Indigenous fishing associations and First Nations have not taken place to discuss the requirements further.
"We now have a situation where stakeholder groups are not in agreement on how access to the fishery can be achieved in a controlled and regulated manner," the release reads.
"The PEIFA does not support granting additional access to the fishery and expects the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) to fully enforce existing regulations. The association strongly opposes conflict of any type and is frustrated this situation has evolved when workable solutions for all stakeholders could have been achieved."
CBC News has reached out to the provincial fisheries department for comment, but had not heard back by Thursday evening.