Canada ‘ragging the puck’ on First Nations fishing rights, MP says

Minister promises to “uphold those treaty rights” when asked about government inaction


The remnants of Hurricane Teddy put Sipekne'katik First Nation's moderate livelihood lobster fishery on hold this week but the community vows to keep fishing. Photo: Angel Moore/APTN

The federal NDP fisheries critic accuses successive Liberal and Conservative governments of stalling tactics and sending their negotiators to the table empty handed without clear mandates to implement First Nations fishing rights – not just in Mi’kmaw territory but on the West Coast as well.

“We know full well that those tables aren’t resourced properly and that the government hasn’t really issued a true mandate to their negotiators to resolve these issues,” B.C. MP Gord Johns told APTN News earlier this week.

“They’re ragging the puck,” he said, a hockey expression meaning when a player controls the puck to kill off time but doesn’t try to score.

“It’s government inaction, and the Liberals have abandoned Indigenous fishers and left DFO officials without mandates or direction to respect reconciliation and Constitutionally entrenched rights that are reaffirmed by the courts.”

The federal government has had two decades to implement the Marshall decision, a 1999 Supreme Court of Canada ruling which affirmed the Mi’kmaq have a treaty-based right to fish for a moderate livelihood.

The justices didn’t define moderate livelihood, however, and the parties haven’t agreed on what it means.

The situation is similar in British Columbia, the MP explained.

In 2013, the B.C. Court of Appeal affirmed the Nuu-chah-nulth Nation’s Aboriginal right “to sell fish for the purpose of attaining the modern equivalent of sustenance, a moderate livelihood, being the basics of food, clothing and housing, supplemented by a few amenities.”

Canada appealed this ruling, known as the Ahousaht decision, to the high court.

They lost. Seven years later, Johns says talks on that front have borne no fruit.

“DFO constantly brings the scope of the meeting down and knowingly goes to the table empty handed,” he said. “The table isn’t resourced at all, and that’s absolutely no different in this situation with the Sipekne’katik and the Mi’kmaq.”

NDP MP Gord Johns addresses the House of Commons on Thursday. In a lengthy speech, he criticized government for not respecting First Nations fishing rights.

On Thursday, the Conservatives asked Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan why she has “failed to take any action” in the dispute over Mi’kmaw livelihood fishing in southwestern Nova Scotia.

Sipekne’katik First Nation launched the historic fishery last week, but both literal and figurative stormy waters greeted the operation.

Commercial fishers protested, tampered with traps and seized them out of the water while dramatic scenes of boat chases and standoffs ensued. The remnants of Hurricane Teddy paused the fishery but operations are expected to resume.

Jordan replied that her priority right now is public safety on and off the water.

“We know that the best path forward is through a constructive, respectful dialogue with First Nations as well as with industry members from Nova Scotia,” she said.

“We are continuing to have those dialogues and we will make sure that we find the path forward to make sure that First Nations treaty rights are implemented.”

Johns also gave an impassioned speech to the House in which he pointed out the government’s throne speech didn’t mention treaty rights.

“They just want to feed their families,” he said of the Mi’kmaw fishers. “They want to be on the water fishing, not in court – and the government does nothing. There is nothing in the speech from the throne addressing that.”

AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde also said the throne speech failed to mention mechanisms for treaty implementation, using the conflict in the Maritimes as an indicator of the issue’s urgency.

Read more:

Teddy hits the east coast pausing Mi’kmaw fishery

‘Lack of awareness’ about treaties at heart of lobster protests, Mi’kmaw MP says

Johns picked up the thread again on Friday, accusing the Liberals of “talking out of both sides of their mouths” on the issue.

“By trying to play both sides they are leaving DFO officials without a clear mandate and they are putting lives at risk,” he said.

Jordan replied again, “We are working to make sure that we uphold those treaty rights.”

APTN previously spoke with the country’s only Mi’kmaw representative on Parliament Hill, Liberal MP Jaime Battiste, who said his government does have a mandate to talk fisheries – even if progress is glacial.

“I worked for the Mi’kmaq of Nova Scotia government when Harper was in power and there was no mandate from the government to negotiate this fishery,” he said.

“Now we actually have a mandate and while we’re slow to get results, the dialogue is happening.”

That argument doesn’t swim with Johns.

“He needs to apply pressure on his own minister and department to get to the table with meaningful negotiation and that means resources to bring to the table,” said Johns of Battiste’s position.

“Governments have done this for decades and it needs to stop. The government must show with actions that they respect the rights of Indigenous peoples and the safety of all fishers.”

In his 2019 mandate letter to the fisheries minister, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau instructed Jordan to “use good scientific evidence and traditional Indigenous knowledge when making decisions affecting fish stocks and ecosystem management.”

But the mandate doesn’t mention treaties, treaty rights or Aboriginal fishing rights.

After a weeks-long prorogation of Parliament, Trudeau now has to issue new mandate letters to all his ministers, laying out his legislative priorities as his minority government enters its second session.

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