Three Mi’kmaq parliamentarians are proposing a new approach to the conflict over the lobster fishery in Atlantic Canada that would bypass Fisheries and Oceans Canada.
In a letter addressed to federal ministers and Indigenous leaders, Liberal MP Jaime Battiste of Nova Scotia, Progressive Sen. Brian Francis of Prince Edward Island and Independent Sen. Daniel Christmas of Nova Scotia call for the creation of an Atlantic First Nations Fisheries Authority.
They say the authority would allow First Nations to work directly with the Crown to set up new fisheries, instead of dealing with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans on a band-by-band basis.
“It’s a partnership approach rather than a paternal approach,” Battiste told CBC News.
“That’s what reconciliation is about. It’s about moving forward together, hearing each other and figuring out how we can best find win-win, collaborative approaches to solving difficult situations.”
Their suggestions come after Sipekne’katik First Nation launched its own Mi’kmaq-regulated, rights-based lobster fishery in St. Marys Bay, about 250 kilometres west of Halifax. It’s believed to be the first of its kind in Nova Scotia.
In response, hundreds of non-Indigenous commercial fishermen confronted the Indigenous fishermen two weeks ago and removed Mi’kmaw lobster traps.
“I just hope that we get this resolved and underway and we can mend the bridge that’s there with the commercial fishermen … in the area,” said Sipekne’katik Chief Mike Sack, who welcomed the suggestions from parliamentarians.
“Hopefully, they know where we’re coming from. We’re not here to interfere, we’re just here to make our presence and have a better life.”
Battiste, Francis and Christmas call their idea to resolve the dispute a “fresh approach to implementing the Marshall decision” — a 1999 Supreme Court of Canada ruling in the case of Donald Marshall Jr.
That landmark decision affirmed the Mi’kmaq right to earn a “moderate livelihood” from fishing but did not explain how that fishery would work. The high court later said the federal government could regulate the Mi’kmaw fishery and must justify any restrictions it placed on it.
“If the current system was fine, Mi’kmaq communities wouldn’t be in poverty,” Battiste said.
“If the current system was fine, we probably wouldn’t have the violent clashes we were having on the water. We need someone to encourage dialogue and create incentives for dialogue.”
The parliamentarians acknowledge some Mi’kmaq and Maliseet communities may still prefer to assert their fishing rights on their own.
Although they say that approach is understandable, they warn it could lead to hostilities and government intervention. They say Ottawa may need to explore the possibility of implementing a catch quota for all fisheries.
“If the overall concern is conservation and the safety of industry and people are willing to take vigilante justice on this, then we have to do something, as a government, to keep people safe,” Battiste said.
“While it’s not our first option in this … we need people to know that this is something that we may need to explore.”
The model that the parliamentarians are suggesting is based on the educational sectorial self-government agreement of Mi’kmaw Kina’matnewey, which Battiste helped develop.
The parliamentarians say their proposal would be optional for First Nations, so financial incentives might be required to encourage them to participate.
Battiste said their ideas were developed after discussions with MPs in Nova Scotia, First Nation chiefs, Fisheries and Oceans Minister Bernadette Jordan, Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett and Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller.