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Mi’kmaw power, inside and beyond Ottawa, stronger than in past fishery battles

Click to play video 'Ottawa summoned by Indigenous and non-Indigenous fishermen in N.S. to settle dispute' Ottawa summoned by Indigenous and non-Indigenous fishermen in N.S. to settle dispute
Tensions continued to run high in western Nova Scotia on Monday as the dispute over a self-regulated Indigenous lobster fishery continued. Graeme Benjamin brings us this report.

HALIFAX — When Jaime Battiste was in his early 20s, cable news channels were full of images of Mi’kmaw fishermen in New Brunswick battling federal fisheries officers over seized lobster traps.

Now, Canada’s first Mi’kmaw MP is on the inside of federal power, trying to help as the launch of an Indigenous lobster fishery in St. Marys Bay in Nova Scotia meets fierce resistance.

“I wonder if they ever thought, 20 years ago, that they’d have two Mi’kmaw senators and a Mi’kmaw MP who could help influence and work with government to find a solution,” the Liberal MP said in a recent interview from his Cape Breton riding.

Read more: N.S. Mi’kmaq won’t deplete lobster stock, says expert

His role is seen by some observers as one sign Mi’kmaw political influence is gradually growing, when compared to the clashes off Burnt Church, N.B., in Miramichi Bay, between 1999 and 2002.

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Curtis Bartibogue, a Mi’kmaw lobster fisherman who was arrested by Department of Fisheries and Oceans officers during that earlier unrest, said public knowledge of treaty rights remains poor, but governments are more reluctant to bring in enforcement crackdowns.

A Sipekne’katik First Nation community member holds a drum as he sits on lobster traps in Saulnierville, N.S. on Sunday, September 20, 2020. A flotilla of non-Indigenous fishing boats moved into St. Marys Bay off western Nova Scotia on Sunday to remove lobster traps set by fishermen from the Sipekne’katik First Nation. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mark O’Neill
A Sipekne’katik First Nation community member holds a drum as he sits on lobster traps in Saulnierville, N.S. on Sunday, September 20, 2020. A flotilla of non-Indigenous fishing boats moved into St. Marys Bay off western Nova Scotia on Sunday to remove lobster traps set by fishermen from the Sipekne’katik First Nation. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mark O’Neill. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mark O'Neill

“There’s a big difference now between government and Indigenous relationships due to our ability to have our voices within government,” he said in an interview Friday from his community, now known as Esgenoopetitj First Nation.

He recently was following closely as Sipekne’katik First Nation held a ceremony on Sept. 17 at Saulnierville wharf in southwestern Nova Scotia, issuing five lobster licences.

Click to play video 'Indigenous lobster traps removed from Nova Scotia waters' Indigenous lobster traps removed from Nova Scotia waters
Indigenous lobster traps removed from Nova Scotia waters

Like Esgenoopetitj, the Nova Scotia community cites the 1999 Supreme Court of Canada decision stating Donald Marshall Jr. had a treaty right to fish for eels when and where he wanted, without a licence.

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The Marshall decision also said the Mi’kmaq, Maliseet and Passamaquoddy bands could hunt, fish and gather to earn a “moderate livelihood,” though the court followed up with a clarification two months later, saying the treaty right was subject to federal regulation.

As in earlier crises, opposition from non-Indigenous fishermen has been based on arguments that the First Nations must abide by Ottawa’s conservation measures, and out-of-season fishing is therefore illegal.

Read more: Hundreds gathered at Halifax Waterfront to stand in solidarity with Mi’kmaw fishers

Hundreds of non-Indigenous fishermen gathered for protests at wharfs after the new Nova Scotia fishery was announced this month, and later a flotilla hauled 350 Mi’kmaw traps from the water.

However, the reaction from Ottawa has followed a different pattern from the early 2000s.

Sipekne’katik First Nation community members wave a flag that reads ‘We are all treaty people’, while a coast guard helicopter hovers in the background in Saulnierville, N.S. on Sunday, September 20, 2020.
Sipekne’katik First Nation community members wave a flag that reads ‘We are all treaty people’, while a coast guard helicopter hovers in the background in Saulnierville, N.S. on Sunday, September 20, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mark O'Neill

Senators Dan Christmas of Membertou First Nation and Brian Francis from Lennox Island First Nation issued a letter noting the Mi’kmaq had treaty rights to hunt, fish and to earn a moderate livelihood.

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Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan and Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett said in a Sept. 21 statement they won’t tolerate vigilante action on the water, saying there’s “no place for the threats, intimidation, or vandalism.”

Click to play video 'Contentious lobster fishing dispute in Nova Scotia' Contentious lobster fishing dispute in Nova Scotia
Contentious lobster fishing dispute in Nova Scotia

By Friday, Chief Mike Sack of the Sipekne’katik First Nation, confirmed he would hold talks this week with Jordan and her officials on defining what his community’s moderate livelihood fishery might look like.

And the First Nation’s boats kept fishing.

Meanwhile, Battiste and the Mi’kmaw senators met Friday at the Membertou First Nation in Cape Breton and held online discussions with Jordan and Bennett.

Battiste, a lawyer who has taught university courses on Indigenous treaties, says he’s advocating the concept of co-managed fishing systems, with Mi’kmaw representatives having a direct say in regulations. “It could be the Canada-Mi’kmaw Fishing Authority. I’m not sure if federal legislation is required,” he said.

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Supporters of the Sipekne’katik First Nation lobster fishery gather in Saulnierville, N.S., on Sept. 20, 2020.
Supporters of the Sipekne’katik First Nation lobster fishery gather in Saulnierville, N.S., on Sept. 20, 2020. Alexa MacLean/Global News

It remains to be seen how influential the 41-year-old MP’s views will be.

Naiomi Metallic, the chair in Aboriginal law and policy at Dalhousie University, said a negotiated solution is needed that recognizes treaty rights and includes a “significant and meaningful role for Mi’kmaq management of their own fishery.”

Read more: Sipekne’katik First Nation to meet with DFO next week

She said to date the DFO response has been an initiative to provide commercial licences to some Mi’kmaw communities willing to participate, but it hasn’t settled the issue of a moderate livelihood fishery under Indigenous control.

“Canada has been dragging and dragging its feet at the negotiation table and people are fed up,” she said.

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Bartibogue, who now holds a commercial licence, said his community accepted the DFO licences after years of battles, but he said the push for more control will continue.

Click to play video 'Sipekne’katik First Nation fishermen say their right to fish denied' Sipekne’katik First Nation fishermen say their right to fish denied
Sipekne’katik First Nation fishermen say their right to fish denied

He said his community just completed a two-week “treaty fishery” where he estimated about 500 traps were set for a total lobster catch of approximately 20,000 pounds.

“We basically did like what they’re doing in St. Marys’ Bay …. We just finished it yesterday and it went off pretty well,” he said.

Battiste wouldn’t speculate on how large a moderate livelihood fishery for his people would be.

“We will work with the government to figure out what is possible. … At the end of the day, we can’t have continued hostilities on the water that flare up like this,” he said.

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— This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 27, 2020.