Indigenous Lobstering Rights At Center Of Canadian Dispute

Oct 21, 2020

The lobster industry just north of Maine has been rocked in recent weeks by a dispute between indigenous fishermen and other lobstermen. This past week saw an escalation in that conflict and greater attention from political leaders.

Reporter Haley Ryan from the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. has been following the situation and gave an update to Morning Edition host Irwin Gratz.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Gratz: Here in Maine, We’re no strangers to disputes over the rights of indigenous people. Why don’t we start by outlining what the historic elements are that are fueling this dispute.

Ryan: So we can start by going back to the 1750s, because that’s when our Peace and Friendship treaties here in Nova Scotia between the Miꞌkmaq and the crown began. There’s the 1752 treaty that is being cited quite a lot at the heart of this debate. And that one says that the Miꞌkmaq people can fish and hunt for their livelihood, but also can sell and the crown does not have any infringement on that. Then there’s also treaties from the 1760s that say they are allowed to do this for more of a “moderate livelihood.”

Those were the treaties that were upheld much more recently and kind of clarified in the Supreme Court in 1999. That was when a Miꞌkmaq man by the name of Donald Marshall Jr. came forward. He was fishing eel and his rights to actually do that and have a moderate livelihood were upheld in our Supreme Court. But since then, nothing has happened in defining that moderate livelihood.

So that is where the real problems come into play, that our federal fisheries department did not define “moderate livelihood” and what that really means. So that’s why we have the Miꞌkmaq communities taking this into their own hands by deciding what that moderate livelihood is now.

So what happened most recently that escalated the tensions?

On Sept. 17, the Sipekne’katik First Nation launched their moderate livelihood fishery. So that kind of created a bit of a flashpoint, because the nonindigenous commercial fishermen have been protesting the fishery since then. But, you know, tensions have kind of gone up and down, and the last week is really when things started becoming more violent. There were two raids on lobster pounds in the Digby area around St. Mary’s Bay, where the moderate livelihood fishery is. Commercial fishermen took lobster out of the pounds, there were some Miꞌkmaq fishermen in the pounds recording this and kind of showing the video about all the lobster being taken out. There was a physical assault on the chief of this band who is doing a livelihood fishery, there’s video showing him being physically attacked. There was also arson — one of the lobster pounds that was raided was actually burned to the ground this past weekend. And a man is in hospital with very serious, life-threatening injuries right now.

What was the police response to this?

The police have said that they did everything that they needed to do. Our federal indigenous minister just said over the past couple of days that he feels like the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, who are the police in rural areas here, they let down the Miꞌkmaq people, the indigenous people. He said that the RCMP did not do enough to step in and defuse tensions. Videos do show the RCMP standing around during those lobster raids that I mentioned. And during some verbal shouting matches, during large crowds, they also have not specifically dispersed anyone. In the last couple of days, there’s been more RCMP added to the area that have specifically been trained in deescalation.

Can indigenous peoples sell the lobster they’re catching?

There are certain amount of Miꞌkmaq indigenous people who have commercial fisheries licenses themselves that certainly can. If you have a commercial fishery license, you can. However, the province has said no, under the moderate livelihood fishery that’s ongoing, that’s new, you cannot sell those lobsters. Because the fisheries department has to figure that out first, so they’re not allowing it officially. But the Miꞌkmaq contend that they believe that they do have the right to sell their moderate livelihood lobster to make a profit.

I think the chief right now, Chief Mike Sack, is kind of focusing on defining the fishery and working with the fisheries. But certainly there’s people in the community that actually took it upon themselves to bring some treaty lobster, some of these moderate livelihood fishery lobster, to Halifax to sell it. That was just last weekend and they sold out very quickly. It was a huge thing, lots of people lined up to buy this lobster and directly support the Miꞌkmaq.

So is this going to have a major impact on the lobster fishery there?

So that is the argument that nonindigenous commercial fishers have, that they are worried that this fishery would impact the stocks. It is out of the season, our commercial fishery here in Nova Scotia doesn’t start until November. So they’re worried that anything that’s caught might have an impact on the stocks.

But the Miꞌkmaq contend, and at least one professor here has said — the fisheries minister and many more politicians actually said recently — that they do not believe that the small Miꞌkmaq moderate livelihood fishery will have a dramatic impact on the stocks in St. Mary’s Bay. And that is a large fishing area — there’s more than 900 licenses in that area alone. And there’s only 11 licenses in this moderate livelihood fishery that we’re talking about.

Correction: Treaties that say the Miꞌkmaq are allowed to fish and hunt for a “moderate livelihood” date from the 1760s, not from the 1960s.