For Acadian fisherman, early Mi’kmaq fishery in N.S. bay can ‘never’ be respected

Click to play video: 'What’s behind the tensions between the Mi’kmaq and commercial fisheries?'
What’s behind the tensions between the Mi’kmaq and commercial fisheries?
Mi’kmaw journalist Trina Roache shares some history and insight into the ongoing tensions between the Mi’kmaq and commercial fisheries in Nova Scotia. – Oct 22, 2020

This is the first of two profiles of non-Indigenous and Indigenous lobster harvesters working on St. Marys Bay in southwestern Nova Scotia.

METEGHAN, N.S. – As he stands calmly splicing anchor rope, Roger LeBlanc describes the anxiety, anger and suspicion over a Mi’kmaq lobster fishery that is coursing through his small Acadian community.

“This stock has been building up for 150 years, and my grandfather and my father and myself, we sat at the table with governments, we made rules to have a livelihood for our kids and grandkids,” he said during an interview this week at his workshop in Meteghan, a largely French-speaking town on St. Marys Bay.

“In a few more years, what we worked for . . . will be gone.”

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The threat perceived by LeBlanc, 61, is the launch of a lobster fishery by Sipekne’katik First Nation in September, with the band citing the 1999 Supreme Court of Canada’s 1999 ruling that stated East Coast Indigenous nations have the right to earn a “moderate livelihood” from their catch.

In the weeks that followed, Indigenous traps were cut, a boat burned, vehicles were destroyed, and one lobster pound that handles Indigenous catch was damaged while another was burned down.

Click to play video: 'Fire destroys Nova Scotia lobster pound used by Mi’kmaq fishers'
Fire destroys Nova Scotia lobster pound used by Mi’kmaq fishers

The actions by groups of up to 200 people have drawn condemnation from across party lines in Parliament.

As he weaves his rope into loops, the 61-year-old LeBlanc says he did not participate in the violence, but he adds it might have been even worse if not for behind-the-scenes efforts to restrain it.

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“There’s always bad weeds on both sides . . . . I don’t agree with burning and violence,” said LeBlanc, who is also a local representative with the Maritime Fishermen’s Union.

“What was on some people’s minds, we had to make them turn around and make them realize this isn’t the way to go. What happened in the last few days, it could have been 300 times worse,” he said.

Meanwhile, he says the atmosphere in the community has descended into one of mistrust and fear since the tension exploded into burning and vandalism.

“You don’t know who to talk to. People are scared. As Acadians, we never used to be like that,” he said.

The roots run deep here, making divisions more painful.

Inside the family homestead in Meteghan, his 91-year-old father Gerald sits by the window with huge binoculars, watching the boats go up and down the bay, which runs alongside a narrow finger of land jutting into the Bay of Fundy.

Gerald’s father fished lobster too, back when traps were wooden and the invertebrates were sometimes used as fertilizer for a farmer’s field when prices fell too low.

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Indigenous lobster boats head from the harbour in Saulnierville, N.S. on Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2020. Tensions remain high over an Indigenous-led lobster fishery that has been the source of conflict with non-Indigenous fishermen. THE CANADIAN PRESS /Andrew Vaughan. THE CANADIAN PRESS /Andrew Vaughan

On the wall, there’s a framed photo of Gerald LeBlanc with his great-grandson, teaching him rope techniques in the workshop. The hope is the little boy will carry on the family tradition.

LeBlanc argues the distress of the Indigenous fishery is driven in part by perceptions the federal Fisheries Department will not listen to his people’s concerns.

In particular, LeBlanc cites the second part of the 1999 ruling in the Donald Marshall Jr. case, when the court clarified that the federal Fisheries Department retains the right to regulate based on conservation and in consultation with the treaty right holders.

In his view, this suggests the Indigenous fishery must be regulated and occur alongside the roughly 80 to 90 commercial lobster harvesters that ply the bay from late November until the spring.

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“We all have Indigenous blood. We always worked side by side. The Acadians are not racist. We know they (Indigenous fishers) have rights, but we can’t respect what’s happening in St. Marys Bay. We never will,” he said.

Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller recently referred to the moderate livelihood fishery in the bay, with just 50 traps each allotted by the band to 10 boats, as “infinitely small” when compared to the commercial fisheries.

Click to play video: 'Indigenous fishers optimistic following granted interim injunction'
Indigenous fishers optimistic following granted interim injunction

However, LeBlanc said comparisons between the tightly focused Indigenous fishery and the commercial fishing effort in a vast coastal area known as Licensed Fisheries Area 34 – where over 900 non-Indigenous fishers have up to 400 traps each – is misleading.

“I know they’re saying, ‘We’re only taking one per cent of the stock,’ but they’re not saying the Indigenous fishers are taking it in a four-square-mile area of the bay,” he said.

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He says lobster migrate into the bay’s inner areas in early summer, shed and regrow their shells, and then begin their movement further back offshore.

Having a moderate livelihood early fall fishery in the midst of this pattern casts a shadow over the long term future of the stock, he argues, adding it remains unknown how large it will eventually become.

He cites the recent catch decline in St. Marys Bay between 2016 and 2019, as the federal Fisheries Department has noted the catch in the bay fell from 1,691 tonnes to 915 tonnes over the three-year period, a decrease of 46 per cent.

At the same time, the number of commercial vessels fishing the bay dropped to 76 from 95.

The Sipekne’katik First Nation has said these figures reveal little, as the catch effort may be tied to rising and falling demand for lobster rather than a decline in the size of the stock.

Chief Mike Sack has called for a federally funded study on the health of the St. Marys Bay stocks, with Indigenous participation.

Click to play video: 'Sipekene’katik First Nation says it’s taking major financial hit due to crisis in lobster industry'
Sipekene’katik First Nation says it’s taking major financial hit due to crisis in lobster industry

However, LeBlanc said peace on the water will only come with moratorium on fishing outside of the existing commercial season.

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After the Marshall decision, he says, he happily fished alongside First Nations boats from the nearby Acadia and Glooscap First Nations. Since the Marshall decision, Ottawa has assisted the bands to obtain about four licences in the region 34 commercial lobster fishery, according to DFO records.

But LeBlanc says about eight years ago he started to notice a growth in a separate Indigenous fishery, known as food, social and ceremonial, which occurred as a result of a separate Supreme Court decision on treaty rights.

This fishery – which occurred outside of the commercial season – didn’t permit sale or barter of the lobster, but LeBlanc said it’s well known sales were occurring, and he started to lose faith in the lobster stock’s health.

After almost 30 years in the bay, he shifted off his father’s harvesting grounds, and has moved to fishing much further out in his 15-metre vessel.

“There’s no longer a future in St. Marys Bay, and it’s absolutely sickening to those who have been here all these years,” he said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 22, 2020.

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