The head of a francophone university in Nova Scotia with experience in fishery disputes has been named as the federal special representative to rebuild trust between commercial and Indigenous fishers following violent opposition to a Mi’kmaw lobster fishery.

Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan and Carolyn Bennett, Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations, announced in a statement on Friday evening that Allister Surette, a former provincial Liberal cabinet minister, will act as a neutral third party in the dispute.

Surette is president and vice-chancellor of Université Sainte-Anne in Pointe-de-l’Église (Church Point), N.S., which sits on St. Marys Bay in Digby County, where the Sipekne’katik First Nation launched its “moderate livelihood” fishery in September.

“It is with great humility and enthusiasm that I begin my work as federal special representative. I will be listening carefully to the concerns of the treaty nations whose rights were affirmed in the Marshall decisions, as well as stakeholders in the fisheries sector,” Surette said in the release, referring to a 1999 ruling by the Supreme Court of Canada.

“I look forward to creating a forum for respectful dialogue so that, together, we can move forward.”

While the Supreme Court decision affirmed the right of the Mi’kmaq to fish for a “moderate livelihood,” the federal government has never defined what that means. 

According to the school’s website, Surette is originally from West Pubnico, in southern Nova Scotia, and was the MLA for Argyle from 1993-98.

His biography on a federal government website, prepared by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, says Surette “has previously acted as a facilitator to resolve conflicts between parties in the fisheries, including the lobster fishery.” In December 2003, it said, he led discussions between herring fishers from P.E.I. and New Brunswick, as well as their provincial governments. And in March 2006, Surette “facilitated an independent process to resolve a dispute between fishers from Prince Edward Island and the Magdalen Islands regarding lobster fishing on MacLeod’s Ledge.”

The government release said Surette’s work begins immediately. His first priority is to meet with Mi’kmaw representatives, as well as commercial sector leaders and harvesters, to listen to concerns and foster dialogue “with the objective of decreasing tensions and preventing further escalation of this conflict.”

In the coming weeks and months, Surette will also meet with commercial leaders and harvesters in other parts of Atlantic Canada; Indigenous leaders in Nova Scotia and in other parts of Atlantic Canada and the Gaspé region of Quebec; provincial governments; and others as needed.

He will gather the different perspectives on the issues, build understanding and make recommendations to the federal ministers, “as well as to the public,” so all groups can move toward a positive resolution.

“Commercial and Indigenous harvesters have been fishing side-by-side for decades, and we need that to continue. You have shared the wharves, and we must find a way to share the resource as well,” Jordan said in the release.

The fisheries minister said while the federal government continues to work directly with the Mi’kmaq in nation-to-nation talks about the fishery, this structured forum led by Surette provides “the right environment to ensure all voices are heard throughout the process. A peaceful resolution is achievable, and this will strengthen our fisheries and our communities.”

Commercial fishers say they oppose the Sipekne’katik’s fishery because it operates outside of the federally mandated season and they worry it will hurt lobster stocks in St. Marys Bay. 

Earlier this month, several hundred commercial fishers and their supporters targeted and vandalized two facilities where Mi’kmaw fishers store their catch. One of those facilities was later burned to the ground in what police said was a suspicious fire.

A Digby County man has also been charged after an assault on Sipekne’katik First Nation Chief Mike Sack.

A Nova Scotia Supreme Court judge has now issued a temporary court injunction to end blockades, interference and threats against Sipekne’katik band members who are fishing for lobster in southwest Nova Scotia.

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