Nova Scotia

Mi'kmaw band raises concerns about Sipekne'katik lobster fishery

Bear River First Nation Chief Carol Dee Potter says fishers from her community have been forced out of the St. Marys Bay area of southwest Nova Scotia since Sipekne'katik First Nation launched its moderate livelihood fishery last month.

Bear River chief says her band members can no longer fish in St. Marys Bay due to the ongoing fishery dispute

Mi'kmaw fishing boats tied up at Saulnierville wharf in southwest Nova Scotia on Oct. 22. The chief of Bear River First Nation said their fishers have been forced out of the St. Marys Bay area due to the ongoing dispute over a moderate livelihood lobster fishery launched by the Sipekne'katik First Nation. (Eric Woolliscroft/CBC)

A Mi'kmaw band is raising concerns about the Sipekne'katik First Nation's moderate livelihood fishery on St. Marys Bay in southwest Nova Scotia, and says its two-decade effort to repair relations with non-Indigenous communities in the area is "quickly being eroded."

The chief of Bear River First Nation — a small Mi'kmaw band with reserve land close to St. Marys Bay — said no one consulted her band before Sipekne'katik launched its self-regulated lobster fishery last month.

In a letter sent to media and addressed to federal Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan, Sipekne'katik Chief Mike Sack and other Indigenous leaders, Bear River Chief Carol Dee Potter said her community has fished St. Marys Bay "since time immemorial," but they've recently been disrupted.

"Over the last few weeks, our fishers have been forced out of this area due to the ongoing dispute," Potter wrote in the letter. "It is hard to see how any way forward can be developed ... when so many are intent on escalating the situation on St. Marys Bay."

Following last month's launch of the Sipekne'katik fishery, which has operated outside the commercial season, commercial fishermen and their supporters have reacted with anger and sometimes violence, including the swarming of two lobster facilities holding Mi'kmaw catches. 

Work 'quickly being eroded'

Potter, who declined an interview request through a band spokesperson, said in her letter the confrontations and violence have caused collateral damage.

She said her band has worked tirelessly to repair relationships with non-Indigenous communities after the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in 1999 that Indigenous groups on the East Coast have a protected treaty right to fish, hunt and gather to earn a moderate livelihood.

That court ruling, known as the Marshall decision, sparked violent clashes in 1999 and 2000 after some Mi'kmaw bands started asserting their rights in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.

"All that work over the past decades is quickly being eroded by others who will soon leave this area, leaving us to pick up the pieces," Potter wrote. 

She said her community is closer to St. Marys Bay than any other First Nation in southwestern Nova Scotia. The Sipekne'katik band is based inland, north of Halifax, about 250 kilometres east of the bay.

Potter said in her letter that Bear River is in the process of developing a plan for its own moderate livelihood fishery on St. Marys Bay, but gave no indication of when it might launch.

She said Bear River's moderate livelihood fishery would be in collaboration with two other Mi'kmaw communities: Acadia First Nation and Annapolis Valley First Nation. The three bands occupy territory in southwest Nova Scotia, in the traditional Mi'kmaw district known as Kespu'kwitk.

In an interview with CBC News, Sipekne'katik Chief Mike Sack said he'd received widespread support from across the Mi'kmaw community for his band's moderate livelihood fishery, including from Potter on the day the fishery launched.

"We were very grateful to have Carol at our drop day ... that was a huge gesture on her behalf, and we thank her for that."

Sack said he took no responsibility for any backlash other bands have since received, but said he would help other communities advance their own moderate livelihood fisheries.

He said he was glad to hear Bear River was organizing its own self-regulated fishery on the same bay, and had shared with them Sipekne'katik's management plan.

Other concerns raised

Cory Francis, a member of Acadia First Nation and a candidate in that band's upcoming band council election, said he, too, had concerns about Sipekne'katik's new lobster fishery.

Francis said he's an advocate for Indigenous treaty rights, "so initially I thought it was a good thing."

He said the past six weeks have been helpful in terms of treaty education for the general public, but he doubts that the current negotiations between Sipekne'katik and the federal government will lead to meaningful change for most Mi'kmaw families in Nova Scotia.

"I believe that the process that is being pursued to implement a moderate livelihood fishery now ... is more political than law abiding and respecting the parameters of Marshall," he told CBC's Information Morning Nova Scotia.

Francis said moderate livelihood fisheries are not meant to generate commercial wealth, but to address regional economic fairness, and to ensure individuals and families are able to generate some revenue to live on.

He said he thinks the current dispute will end "in a political decision that will only promote further communal commercial licences." And he worries those licenses won't be distributed equally or fairly to all band members who want access to the fishery.

"Individual members like myself and other individual Acadia First Nation members that aren't so well-connected ... with existing authorities that will be making the decisions will be left out, as will our families."

Read the full statement from Chief Potter below

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With files from the Canadian Press and CBC's Information Morning Nova Scotia