The Sipekne’katik First Nation is rejecting an edict from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) to continue to operate under federal rules.
“We’re going to establish our own fishery and our seasons outside of theirs,” Chief Mike Sack said Wednesday.
“We’ll push our own season and determine what those months are going to be.”
Sack was responding to a letter from Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan that said any moderate livelihood fishery must operate under the rules and regulations of DFO’s commercial fishery.
Jordan’s letter, dated March 3, said: “As we approach the 2021 fishing season on the East Coast, I am focused on solutions that protect Indigenous rights, and all those who work in our fisheries in order to provide everyone an opportunity to thrive.
“We can absolutely have a fishery that is peaceful, productive and prosperous, one that upholds the Marshall decisions and ensures First Nations are able to exercise their Treaty rights, in a way that is reflective of their Nation’s vision, needs, and wishes.”
Then the letter spells out the rules under which any moderate livelihood fishery would be negotiated and what Canada is “prepared” to allow, including balancing “additional First Nations access through already available licences” and the fact “these fisheries will operate within established seasons.”
Sack said none of that was acceptable.
One of the issues is the size of the boats used by the commercial fishery are much larger than boats used by Mi’kmaq harvesters meaning the Mi’kmaq couldn’t fish in December waters.
Community members have told APTN that fishing with large boats in the deep waters is not moderate livelihood fishing, it is commercial fishing.
“We’ve had a firm line that we’re not going to accept a DFO licence, we’re not going to fish in a DFO season that they’re trying to outline or impose on us,” Sack told reporters at a news conference.
“We have a management plan that is better for conservation than theirs is, so we’re going to follow our own plan.”
The federal government has been trying to get Mi’kmaq communities to the table to sign what are called Rights Reconciliation Agreements or RRAs.
The same wording was found in government documents obtained by APTN.
In 1999, the Supreme Court of Canada released what is known as the Marshall Decision. It centred on First Nations’ fisher Donald Marshall Jr., who was charged with catching and selling eels out of season in 1996.
The high court didn’t give the Mi’kmaq the right to fish, but recognized and upheld their right enshrined in the Treaties.
Read the minister’s letter to Sipekne’katik First Nation Chief Mike Sack:
The judges created the term ‘moderate livelihood’ so the Mi’kmaq could make money, but not get rich.
The court then issued a second decision clarifying this right would be regulated by Canada if conservation was an issue.
Even then, the court said consultation must be done.
But Canada has done little to negotiate the terms of a moderate livelihood fishery with Mi’kmaq harvesters since then.
Jordan, in her letter, said the start of any fishery involving Mi’kmaq harvesters would include “an increased and coordinated federal presence on water and on land this spring, including fishery officers, supported by Canadian Coast Guard vessels.”
This appears to be in response to attacks last fall on Mi’kmaq fishers by non-Indigenous fishers. Traps were stolen, catch was destroyed, and a lobster pound was burned to the ground.
DFO and the RCMP were heavily criticized for sitting and watching the violence unfold and doing nothing to stop it.
Documents obtained by APTN show that both DFO and the RCMP knew of the impending attacks on Mi’kmaq harvesters but were more concerned about the moderate livelihood fishery than any violent acts that might take place.
During the melee on the water DFO also seized hundreds of M’kmaq traps – some of which were returned to the community Wednesday.
“It’s very unfortunate that people have been going through that…,” Sack said, “We’re supporting our people 100 percent and we’ll continue to do so legally; we’ll back them up but hopefully it doesn’t go to that, but if it goes to court we’ll be ready for that as well.”
Sack said his community is looking at building its own factory to make lobster traps and establish ways for band members to sell their catch.
Also Wednesday, the Maw-lukutijjik Saqmaq (Assembly of Mi’kmaq Chiefs) issued its own statement on the DFO proposal calling the letter a “unilateral decision” by the department.
“DFO continues to dictate and impose their rules on a fishery that is outside of their scope and mandate,” said Chief Gerald Toney, the Assembly’s fisheries lead.
“The Right to a livelihood fishery is not – and should not be – industry or federal government driven. It is something that needs to come from the Mi’kmaq of Nova Scotia. Imposing restrictions independently, without input of the Mi’kmaq, on our implementation of Rights is an approach that must stop.”
With files from Brett Forester