Potlotek chief says band losing patience with DFO over fishery

·4 min read

Lobster harvesters from Potlotek First Nation in Cape Breton are losing patience with the federal government after the Department of Fisheries and Oceans confiscated about 150 of the community's traps last weekend.

Potlotek Chief Wilbert Marshall told CBC's Information Morning Cape Breton that the problem is the minister recognizes the Mi'kmaw right to fish for a moderate livelihood, but the department's enforcement officers do not.

Marshall said his frustration with federal officials boiled over during a phone call with the department on Thursday.

"I ended up hanging up on them," he said. "I'm just fed up with them. They can't just keep giving us the runaround."

Marshall said he is not advocating any kind of confrontation, but the band is not going to give up, either.

He expressed concern that the situation could become similar to the one in New Brunswick in 2001, with non-Indigenous and Indigenous fish harvesters clashing, traps being cut and lost, and several people being sent to hospital.

'My people are fed up'

"We're going to keep fishing," Marshall said.

"We're just going to keep putting traps in the water. It's as simple as that. I know my people are fed up and I don't want nobody to retaliate, but I think that's what they want. I think they want another Burnt Church, or even worse.

"We don't want that, but if it goes that way, we're not backing down."

Potlotek band members have been quietly conducting a moderate livelihood lobster fishery in St. Peters Bay for the past three weeks.

That's in contrast to southwest Nova Scotia, where tense and sometimes violent confrontations by commercial harvesters occurred after Sipekne'katik First Nation launched a self-regulated lobster fishery in St. Marys Bay last month.

Protesters say the fisheries are outside federally regulated seasons and will hurt lobster stocks.

Mi'kmaq say it's been 21 years since the Supreme Court ruling in the case of Donald Marshall Jr. affirmed their right to earn a moderate livelihood from fishing, and they are tired of waiting.

Brent Kelloway/CBC
Brent Kelloway/CBC

It was that 1999 decision that led to confrontations and violence in New Brunswick, but since then, no one has defined what constitutes a moderate livelihood or how it could work.

Commercial fish harvesters in Cape Breton have avoided any public comment or confrontation with Potlotek this month.

"They haven't retaliated," said the Potlotek chief. "They've kept their word."

After DFO enforcement officers pulled Potlotek traps last weekend, band members protested outside the DFO office in Louisdale, demanding the return of their gear.

Brent Kelloway/CBC
Brent Kelloway/CBC

Marshall said DFO claims to have pulled 137 traps, but 165 are missing.

Marshall said he and his legal team and officials with the Mi'kmaw Rights Initiative met with DFO officials over the phone on Thursday, but enforcement officials were not on the call.

He said legislative changes are needed to clarify the moderate livelihood fishery, put a stop to enforcement and ease tensions.

"The last thing anybody wants to do is fight amongst each other," Marshall said.

"We don't want to do that. I don't want our people charged. More than likely I'll be getting charged, too, but I'll be right there with them."

He said he doesn't want retaliation.

"I don't want to do that. I know it's been peaceful, but I told them we're not backing down. We've had enough. We're done. Either come up with something fruitful or, I don't know, we've just had enough.

"I know one thing. We're not going to stop fishing."


Marshall said he wants to meet with enforcement officials and has been promised they will get in touch.

CBC has asked the Department of Fisheries and Oceans for comment and is awaiting response on the apparent conflict between the minister's support for a moderate livelihood fishery and the continued enforcement of the Fisheries Act.

Minister Bernadette Jordan's office declined an interview, instead referring to an interview she gave earlier this week with CBC's Information Morning.

In it, the MP for South Shore–St. Margarets said the small-scale fisheries pose no threat to lobster stocks and the government continues to work with both Mi'kmaw and commercial harvesters to try to define a moderate livelihood fishery.