A facilitator appointed by the federal government says he’s ready to start talking to First Nations and commercial lobster fishers to settle tensions in southwest Nova Scotia, but the chief of the band embroiled in the conflict says those talks are not a priority.

Responding to Ottawa’s decision to name Allister Surette as a facilitator in the dispute, Sipekne’katik Chief Mike Sack said he had “mixed feelings.” 

He said that while he was not fundamentally opposed to participating in the process, “right now, we’re not worried about that.”

Surette, president and vice-chancellor of Université Sainte-Anne who has experience as a facilitator in fishery disputes, was named to the role on Friday.

Over the weekend, he said he was still in the early stages of preparing, studying the issue and trying to identify which parties to invite to join the dialogue.

The process needs to include representatives of both the Mi’kmaq and the commercial fishing industry, Surette said. Although he cannot compel anyone to participate, Surette said he would “try to reach out as much as I can” to see that his invitations are accepted.

Surette said his work might lead to a resolution in the fishery dispute, but “how far we can move to try to overcome this impasse — well, that will be determined as the process moves forward.”

Sack, however, maintained that the resolution lies in his band’s talks with the federal government, not with commercial fishers.

“We’re worried about our management plan and we’re talking with [the Department of Fisheries and Oceans] and we’re moving forward, dealing with that,” he said Saturday.

Opposition to the Mi’kmaw lobster fishery on St. Marys Bay has sometimes turned violent since the Sipekne’katik band launched a new “moderate livelihood” fishery operation in that area last month.

Federal Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan proposed bringing in a facilitator after one particularly heated week in the lucrative fishing area earlier this month.

One night in mid-October, hundreds of commercial fishermen and their supporters swarmed two lobster facilities, trapping Mi’kmaw fishermen inside one, torching a vehicle outside the other and causing damage to both. A few days later, one of those facilities burned to the ground in what police say is a suspicious fire.

The Mi’kmaw right to harvest lobster is enshrined in treaties signed in the mid-1700s, and those rights were affirmed by the Supreme Court of Canada in 1999 with the Marshall decision that allowed for a “moderate livelihood.” But the federal government hasn’t defined what that means in practice.

Still, many in the commercial fishing industry oppose Sipekne’katik’s new moderate livelihood fishery because it’s operating outside the federally regulated fishing season. The band is issuing its own tags for traps and has developed its own management plan.

Sack has said the band’s management plan has stringent conservation guidelines, and some experts have said the scale of the fishery won’t harm lobster stocks, but opponents remain unconvinced. Those opposed say fishing outside the regulated season poses too great a risk to the fishery, which is an economic linchpin in southwest Nova Scotia.

Following Sipekne’katik’s launch of the moderate livelihood fishery last month, other bands in the province have followed suit, and more say they’re preparing moderate livelihood fisheries of their own. 

The Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq Chiefs represents 12 of 13 bands across the province — all but Sipekne’katik — and had been in talks with the DFO over their moderate livelihood fisheries. 

But the assembly said on Friday that those talks had broken down.

“In a very critical moment, the federal government has failed us,” Membertou Chief Terrance Paul said in a news release.

“We have been pushing for movement from Canada to work together on the right to a moderate livelihood, and we have been met, once again, with roadblocks to these discussions moving ahead.”

Earlier in the week, the assembly said DFO conservation and protection officers had seized more than 200 traps belonging to fishers from the Potlotek and Eskasoni bands, and it demanded those traps be returned.

In its news release on Friday, the assembly said those conservation and protection officers “refused to attend” a meeting, and that other DFO officials “said they would not exercise authority” to stop their colleagues from seizing Mi’kmaw traps.

Sack said it was “very unfortunate” that the assembly’s talks with DFO had broken down, but he said his band’s talks with DFO and other federal departments were still moving forward. 

“We’re having great conversations…. And I’m very grateful for the dialogue we’re having. Minister Jordan, Minister [Carolyn] Bennett, we’re in contact quite a bit and things are well, and I appreciate those conversations we’re having,” he said.

Sack said he would only consider joining Surette’s process after the band and DFO conclude their talks and come to an accord about the future of the band’s moderate livelihood fishery.

“We’ll talk with him at that time if it’s still needed.”

Surette said he’s been instructed to file an interim report by the end of this year and a final report with advice and recommendations by the end of March 2021.

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