A facilitator appointed by the federal government says he's ready to start talking to First Nations and commercial lobster fishers to settle tensions in southwest Nova Scotia, but the chief of the band embroiled in the conflict says those talks are not a priority.
Responding to Ottawa's decision to name Allister Surette as a facilitator in the dispute, Sipekne'katik Chief Mike Sack said he had "mixed feelings."
He said that while he was not fundamentally opposed to participating in the process, "right now, we're not worried about that."
Surette, president and vice-chancellor of Université Sainte-Anne, was named to the role on Friday.
Over the weekend, he said he was still in the early stages of preparing, studying the issue and trying to identify which parties to invite to join the dialogue.
The process needs to include representatives of both the Mi'kmaq and the commercial fishing industry, Surette said. Although he cannot compel anyone to participate, Surette said he would "try to reach out as much as I can" to see that his invitations are accepted.
Surette said his work might lead to a resolution in the fishery dispute, but "how far we can move to try to overcome this impasse — well, that will be determined as the process moves forward."
Chief's focus is on talks with Ottawa
Sack, however, maintained that the resolution lies in his band's talks with the federal government, not with commercial fishers.
"We're worried about our management plan and we're talking with [the Department of Fisheries and Oceans] and we're moving forward, dealing with that," he said Saturday.
Sack also questioned Surette's qualifications. In a news release issued Sunday, Sack said he had spoken with Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett about the appointment, and raised concerns about Surette's "capacity to be an objective or neutral third party with limited experience in Indigenous affairs and treaty rights."
Surette was born in southwest Nova Scotia, and for five years in the 1990s he was a Nova Scotia Liberal MLA for an electoral district in the area, as well as serving as a cabinet minister. The university that he now heads has its main campus less than 10 kilometres from the Saulnierville wharf, where Sipekne'katik fishers have based their operations for the past five weeks.
His biography on a federal government website, prepared by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, says Surette "has previously acted as a facilitator to resolve conflicts between parties in the fisheries, including the lobster fishery."
Surette said his closeness to the community motivated him to accept the role of facilitator, in the hopes he could offer some assistance, but he insisted he would be able to maintain neutrality.
"That's something that I've tried to pride myself on.... I do try to keep an open mind in anything that I do," Surette said.
"I realize that there are different issues, clearly different opinions on both sides. We have to respect the rights of the Marshall decision and the First Nations [right] for a moderate livelihood. On the other hand, we know we have commercial fishers there that want to continue with their livelihood as well. So that's what I have to work with in order to try to see if we can come up with some type of common ground moving forward."
Commercial fisherman pans appointment
Colin Sproul, president of the Bay of Fundy Inshore Fishermen's Association, said he was "a little dumbfounded" that federal Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan would choose Surette "as a neutral representative here."
Sproul said he would have expected stakeholders to be given an opportunity to weigh in on the selection of a facilitator.
"We weren't given that opportunity by the minister at all, and I'm assuming neither were the Mi'kmaw fishers. I'm left wondering how anybody could be willing to move forward like that," he told CBC's Maritime Connection.
Still, Sproul said, commercial fishers are "looking to sit down at any table. Any type of dialogue process is good here, especially at this time of need for conflict resolution."
But given that Sack is hesitant to join the facilitation process, Sproul said he's "really left wondering what can happen here."
Opposition to the Mi'kmaw lobster fishery on St. Marys Bay has sometimes turned violent since the Sipekne'katik band launched a new "moderate livelihood" fishery operation in that area last month.
Jordan proposed bringing in a facilitator after one particularly heated week in the lucrative fishing area earlier this month.
One night in mid-October, hundreds of commercial fishermen and their supporters swarmed two lobster facilities, trapping Mi'kmaw fishermen inside one, torching a vehicle outside the other and causing damage to both. A few days later, one of those facilities burned to the ground in what police say is a suspicious fire.
The Mi'kmaw right to harvest lobster is enshrined in treaties signed in the mid-1700s, and those rights were affirmed by the Supreme Court of Canada in 1999 with the Marshall decision that allowed for a "moderate livelihood." But the federal government hasn't defined what that means in practice.
Still, many in the commercial fishing industry oppose Sipekne'katik's new moderate livelihood fishery because it's operating outside the federally regulated fishing season. The band is issuing its own tags for traps and has developed its own management plan.
Sack has said the band's management plan has stringent conservation guidelines, and some experts have said the scale of the fishery won't harm lobster stocks, but opponents remain unconvinced. Those opposed say fishing outside the regulated season poses too great a risk to the fishery, which is an economic linchpin in southwest Nova Scotia.
Talks break down
Following Sipekne'katik's launch of the moderate livelihood fishery last month, other bands in the province have followed suit, and more say they're preparing moderate livelihood fisheries of their own.
The Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi'kmaq Chiefs represents 12 of 13 bands across the province — all but Sipekne'katik — and had been in talks with the DFO over their moderate livelihood fisheries.
But the assembly said on Friday that those talks had broken down.
"In a very critical moment, the federal government has failed us," Membertou Chief Terrance Paul said in a news release.
"We have been pushing for movement from Canada to work together on the right to a moderate livelihood, and we have been met, once again, with roadblocks to these discussions moving ahead."
Earlier in the week, the assembly said DFO conservation and protection officers had seized more than 200 traps belonging to fishers from the Potlotek and Eskasoni bands, and it demanded those traps be returned.
In its news release on Friday, the assembly said those conservation and protection officers "refused to attend" a meeting, and that other DFO officials "said they would not exercise authority" to stop their colleagues from seizing Mi'kmaw traps.
Sack said it was "very unfortunate" that the assembly's talks with DFO had broken down, but he said his band's talks with DFO and other federal departments were still moving forward.
"We're having great conversations.... And I'm very grateful for the dialogue we're having. Minister Jordan, Minister [Carolyn] Bennett, we're in contact quite a bit and things are well, and I appreciate those conversations we're having," he said.
Sack said he would only consider joining Surette's process after the band and DFO conclude their talks and come to an accord about the future of the band's moderate livelihood fishery.
"We'll talk with him at that time if it's still needed."
Surette said he's been instructed to file an interim report by the end of this year and a final report with advice and recommendations by the end of March 2021.