Potlotek harvesters fishing as form of resistance

·4 min read

ST. PETER'S BAY — As Potlotek’s moderate livelihood fishers return to the wharf along the St. Peter’s canal Saturday, the mood was in high spirits. But memories of last week's trap seizures by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans still lingered, and many of the harvesters have come to see the lobster fishery as their form of resistance.

Craig Doucette helped develop Potlotek’s moderate livelihood plan, a plan now adopted by Eskasoni First Nation, and he takes the recent seizures personally.

“There's only two ways I’m going to stop fishing — they’re either going to kill me or throw me in jail, and that’s it,” said Doucette.

“I’m not going to stop.”

But the threats of gear seizures have been on his mind. He fishes out of a 16-foot boat and has only dropped half of his 70 lobster tags. He doesn’t want to lose any more gear. Doucette said his traps cost $200 a piece and losing them could cripple his business. Doucette said he did lose four traps last weekend, but he really isn’t sure if it was DFO.

Doucette’s been fishing under the moderate livelihood plan since it launched Oct. 1 and estimates he’s earned $8,000-$9,000. But it hasn’t been easy for him. There's still a stigma around buying their lobster and he hopes the provincial government steps in and removes restrictions from buying right off the wharf. Now, he said, most buyers want to buy it in private and it makes him feel like he's doing something shady.

“I just really feel like we shouldn’t have to hide,” said Doucette.

In September 2019, he tried fishing on his own without the moderate livelihood plan and over the course of the calendar year he had gear seized three times. Doucette even tried fishing during the commerical season on his own but his gear was still seized.

But he sees any prevention to his business as taking food off his daughter's plate. And now fishing under the moderate livelihood tags he's hopeful he inspires any young Mi’kmaw fishers to take up the trade.

“I’m just trying to make that available for them and for them to not be scared to do it,” said Doucette.

As Kenneth Basque’s boat pulled into the wharf, he was mentoring two of his young crewmen to tie the boat with enough slack for the high tide. Basque is 58 years old and the former chief of Potlotek First Nation. He’s also a former RCMP officer and is teaching Warren Johnson,16, and Henry Isaac, 20, the ins and outs of the fishing industry.

Basque has been fishing since he was four but started off with smelts and other fish before making his way to lobster. He’s been fishing out of the St. Peter's bay for about 10 years now and knows the area is lucrative. But last week's tensions left him uneasy.

“We’re fishing on guard almost every day and its stressful for our people,” said Basque.

He said they wonder if their traps will still be there. He said he's been lucky he hasn’t run into any trouble but some of his community members that fish farther out have run into more problems.

As for mentoring the young men, he’s trying to instil in them the strength and the pride of the treaties and it’s rubbing off.

“Our treaties, we want to keep it so that our kids could fish too and make sure it's still here and make sure it's right strong,” said Johnson.

The 16-year-olds first time on a boat was Oct. 1 and he's glad to be learning from Basque. Johnson hopes to keep earning money so he can support his family. As for Isaac, he feels fishing is his true calling.

“When you’re a naturally born fisherman you just feel happy to be out there,” said the 20-year-old.

“You’re just born to be out on the water.”

He also said Basque is a great captain and he’s been teaching them how to catch other fish. Isaac hopes to have his own boat someday.

In a release on Friday, Chief Wilbert Marshall of Potlotek First Nation said his community would not be backing down and would continue to exercise their treaty rights. On Saturday, Minister Bernadette Jordan’s office said in a release Allister Surette was appointed as a neutral third party to rebuild trust between commercial and Indigenous fishers.

The way Basque sees it the treaties have already laid out how the relationship should move forward and he’s hopeful it leads to more self-governance and an eventual Mi’kmaq led fishing industry with their own enforcement officers.

“There’s no backing down now — we’re here,” said Basque.

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Oscar Baker III, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Cape Breton Post