A draft agreement between Ottawa and a Nova Scotia First nation over a “moderate livelihood” fishery has the potential to be a historic recognition of Mi’kmaq treaty rights, the community’s chief said Sunday.
Mike Sack of Sipekne’katik First Nation said he is reviewing a draft memorandum of understanding he received from the office of Fisheries and Oceans Minister Bernadette Jordan late Friday.
He said the Sipekne’katik Treaty Fishery agreement would allow the Mi’kmaq community to legally sell their catch.
“It’s very significant,” Sack said in an interview. “It can help lift our people out of poverty.”
The office of Fisheries and Oceans Minister Bernadette Jordan released a statement Sunday saying that negotiations between Sipekne’katik and Canada are ongoing as their collaborative work continues towards an agreement.
“Our negotiations have been positive, constructive, and progress is being made. We share the same goals of a productive and sustainable fishery, and to further implement Sipekne’katik First Nation’s Treaty Rights,” the office stated.
The community’s lawyers are also going over the agreement and clarifying a few points to ensure nothing infringes on the treaty rights of future generations, he added.
But the chief said he’d like to get a deal finalized as soon as possible, noting that “these last couple of months have seemed like a lifetime to us.”
Indigenous fishers faced violence and vandalism earlier this fall after launching a rights-based fishery in southwest Nova Scotia.
Tension with non-Indigenous fishers ignited almost as soon as Mi’kmaq boats entered the St. Marys Bay area.
An escalating series of events ensued, leading to the destruction of a lobster pound that had housed the Indigenous fishers’ catch.
Other flareups included the cutting of Mi’kmaq lobster traps, warf-side gatherings of large crowds of protesters hurling racist insults at fishers, and the alleged torching of multiple vehicles.
Sack told Global News that they planned to retaliate during commercial season, but their plans have changed due to COVID-19.
“They took the law into their own hands, we were looking to do the same, unfortunately with COVID-19, we wouldn’t risk taking COVID-19 back to our community or any other community for that matter, it’s a very rough virus so that’s been our biggest halt on things. We’re hoping people fish respectfully and nobody takes our guys and gal’s gear,” he said.
The attacks also prompted widespread condemnation and calls for clarification on Mi’kmaq treaty fishing rights.
Jane Deeks, press secretary for the Fisheries and Oceans Minister, said the federal government and the Sipekne’katik First Nation are continuing to work collaboratively towards an agreement.
“Our negotiations have been positive, constructive, and progress is being made,” she said in an email on Sunday. “While there is still more work ahead of us, we are making progress together.”
She confirmed that a draft memorandum of understanding is currently with Sipekne’katik First Nation.
“We share the same goals of a productive and sustainable fishery, and to further implement Sipekne’katik First Nation’s Treaty Rights,” Deeks added.
Meanwhile, Sack said the agreement follows through on the Supreme Court of Canada’s recognition of Indigenous treaty rights in its landmark 1999 Marshall decision.
The ruling affirmed the Mi’kmaq treaty right to fish for a “moderate livelihood,” though the top court later clarified that the federal government could regulate the fishery for conservation and other limited purposes.
“This agreement has the potential to be a historic recognition of our treaty rights and to make good on the promise and legacy of Donald Marshall Junior’s work,” Sack said.
“The big part for us is making sure we can harvest and sell and it’s reflected in there.”
Next week, Sack said they’ll be selling lobster in the Halifax area.
“That’s the next big step for us. Hopefully that goes along just as well,” he said.
But the new agreement won’t necessarily end the debate on what moderate livelihood means.
“That’s very hard to define and many conversations we’ve had with minister Jordan and our team is that the best ones suited to define that is us for ourselves, nobody knows our community like we do,” said Sack.
“And also we’re looking forward to having a joint signed study with DFO just to ensure that the conservation is there for lobsters for 7 generations to come and that will be a big part of that as well.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 29, 2020.
-With files from Global’s Alicia Draus