National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations Perry Bellegarde says while there is work to be done on defining the treaty right of Mi’kmaq lobster fishers to fish for a “moderate livelihood” amid a worsening dispute with non-Indigenous fishers, the first step needs to be cooling the escalating tensions.
In an interview with The West Block‘s Mercedes Stephenson, Bellegarde said the situation which saw RCMP standing by as a violent mob attacked two Mi’kmaw lobster fishing compounds in southwestern Nova Scotia last week is “not acceptable.”
The conflict was an escalation in a dispute between non-Indigenous commercial lobster fishers and Mi’kmaq lobster fishers asserting their treaty right to fish for a moderate livelihood, as was established but not clearly defined in the Supreme Court’s 1999 Marshall decision.
“There’s two things that have to happen on the East Coast right now,” Bellegarde said.
“One, we have to make sure that there’s calm heads and that cooler heads come together so that there’s peace on the ground. That’s where we call on the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to do their jobs.”
“The next issue would be a process to work with the Mi’kmaw Nation to define what moderate livelihood means,” he continued. “Defining that moderate livelihood is the next big step going forward.”
The interview was recorded before one of the lobster pounds used by Mi’kmaq fishers was destroyed in a fire overnight on Friday. Police are calling the blaze suspicious.
Bellegarde said on Twitter Saturday that he reached out to the RCMP and federal government to express concerns.
“I demand a full and thorough investigation by the proper authorities,” he said.
According to the Marshall decision, the Mi’kmaw people have “a treaty right to hunt, fish and gather in pursuit of a ‘moderate livelihood.’”
Mi’kmaq lobster fishers in southwestern Nova Scotia are asserting that right in defence of the decision to set up licensed lobster fisheries for both feeding their communities and commercial sales in the area outside of the commercial lobster fishing season.
What exactly “moderate livelihood” means, however, has not been clearly established.
Bellegarde said the work to craft that definition needs to be done with officials from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, something Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says will be difficult work.
“This is a situation that is extremely disconcerting,” Trudeau said during a press conference on Friday.
“That’s why we’re calling for an end to the violence and harassment that’s happening… I understand the concerns and the conflict going on right now but we need to find a solution.”
“This is not going to be an easy thing to resolve,” he continued, but said the country must continue working toward reconciliation with Indigenous people.
Bellegarde added that the issue is not one of conservation because the Mi’kmaq lobster fishers access a small fraction of the lobster fishery in question, and that the challenge is finding how to move forward.
“It’s more in the sense of, how does everybody start working together to peacefully coexist.”