Nova Scotia

Removing DFO from Indigenous fishery negotiations an 'integral' step forward, says chief

Sipekne'katik First Nation Chief Mike Sack says a new Senate committee report may be a pathway forward for the recognition and implementation of Indigenous fishing rights.

Senate committee recommends appointing Crown-Indigenous Relations to handle negotiations

Chief Mike Sack of the Sipekne'katik First Nation says he's encouraged by a report recommendation to remove DFO from negotiations involving the Indigenous fishery. (Nic Meloney/CBC)

A new Senate committee report that recommends removing the federal Fisheries Department from all negotiations involving the Indigenous fishery could be "a pathway forward for the recognition and implementation" of treaty rights, says a Mi'kmaw chief in Nova Scotia.

Chief Mike Sack of the Sipekne'katik First Nation said the report, titled Peace on the Water, validates what he and his band have been saying about their right to fish since they launched a moderate livelihood fishery two years ago.

The report calls for negotiations involving the Indigenous fishery to be handled by Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada, which Sack described as "the most integral" of the committee's recommendations.

"The treaty fishery model we presented over two years ago now is reinforced by each recommendation from the Senate," Sack said in a statement.

"[Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller] acutely understands the issues we are faced with and has taken the time to visit with the people of our community and has seen our challenges first-hand."

Mi'kmaw fishers and community members gather in support of an Indigenous lobster fishery in September 2020. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

Sack said although he's encouraged by the report, violence and tension on and off the water could have been avoided had the federal government taken the same position earlier.

"We raised these issues two years ago," he said. "And, had Canada listened, we might not have had to endure the racialized violence that occurred nor the misrepresentation of our communities within the fishery and the general public."

Tension between Indigenous, non-Indigenous fishers

The tension between Indigenous and non-Indigenous fishers reached a boiling point two years ago, when Sipekne'katik First Nation launched its moderate livelihood fishery in St. Marys Bay, N.S.

There was intimidation on and off the water and a fire destroyed a lobster pound where Mi'kmaw fishers were storing their catch.

The report, meanwhile, has been met with resistance from Conservative MP Rick Perkins of South Shore-St. Margarets.

Perkins occupies the seat once held by Liberal Bernadette Jordan, a former federal fisheries minister. Perkins opposes any effort to sideline DFO.

Fisheries critic Rick Perkins is MP for South Shore-St. Margarets. (CBC)

"DFO has responsibility under the Fisheries Act and under the Marshall decisions to manage the fishery, balancing conservation, sustainable management and the commercial interests of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous fishers," Perkins said.

"Crown-Indigenous Relations has no expertise in managing a resource such as the fishery."

Report calls for end to buyback policy

The report's other key recommendation deals with how Indigenous fishers are granted licences.

The senators are calling on the government to abandon the buyback policy that allowed First Nations communities to fish only when non-Indigenous fishers sold a licence.

Sen. Dan Christmas of Membertou said a better model is reallocation of licence and quota.

"I find it very weird that our constitutionally treaty-based rights are subject to buyback approaches," Christmas said.

"If licences aren't available, then Mi'kmaw people don't fish even though we have [the Marshall decision], even though we have constitutionally protected rights."

Perkins said the buyback approach failed because of "DFO's unwillingness to pay market rates" for the licences.


Preston Mulligan has been a reporter in the Maritimes for more than 20 years. Along with his reporting gig, he also hosts CBC Radio's Sunday phone-in show, Maritime Connection.