Nova Scotia

Why one Mi'kmaq fisherman says commercial fishing licences aren't working

One Mi'kmaq fisherman considers efforts to integrate First Nations fishing rights into commercial fisheries nothing short of a colossal failure.

'These licences, they can have them back,' says Dave McDonald of Sipekne'katik First Nation

Dave McDonald, a 60-year-old fisherman from Sipekne'katik First Nation, says the band's commercial fishing licences are not benefiting him. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

Canadian taxpayers and First Nations have spent millions of dollars buying commercial fishing licences to integrate Indigenous communities into Nova Scotia's lucrative lobster, snow crab and other commercial fisheries.

But one Mi'kmaq fisherman considers those efforts a waste of time and money.

"These licences, they can have them back," said Dave McDonald, a 60-year-old fisherman from Sipekne'katik First Nation near Shubenacadie, N.S. "All it is doing is dividing our community." 

"Those licences ain't no good to our people. Those licences aren't doing me any good," he said, speaking from the wheelhouse of his nine-metre fishing boat, Shark Patrol.

Leasing licences too pricey

Sipekne'katik First Nation has accumulated more than 30 commercial fishing licences since 1999, the year of the Marshall decision, a landmark ruling by the Supreme Court of Canada giving Mi'kmaq the right to fish to support a moderate livelihood.

Like other bands, Sipekne'katik leases some of its commercial licences but at a price beyond MacDonald's means.

One Mi'kmaq fisherman says in some cases, lobster licences have been unfairly distributed and are dividing First Nations communities. (CBC)

"I can't afford $40,000 to go fishing, to use those licences. And I don't feel I should have to do that. As a matter of fact, I don't want to do that. I want to make a moderate living for myself."

Food, social and ceremonial fishery

McDonald does fish for lobster under the Sipekne'katik band's controversial food, social and ceremonial fishery.

The small-scale summer fishery in St. Marys Bay is open to every band member as an undisputed right of First Nations to fish for food, whether a commercial fishery in the area is open or closed.

However, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans does not permit participants to sell their catch.

This summer, tension over this fishery flared up when non-Indigenous fishermen claimed band members used it as a cloak for widespread, illegal commercial lobster fishing.

A large amount of lobster was discovered dumped in Weymouth, N.S. (Stephanie Blanchet/Radio-Canada)

DFO is investigating allegations of First Nations lobster sales at that time, including the potential involvement of local buyers and processors. It is also looking into the discovery of a large amount of discarded lobsters in the area last month.

McDonald says he hasn't come across anyone fishing for commercial reasons.

"As far as anybody selling it, I don't know about it. I haven't sold my catch," he said.

Need for regulations questioned

But McDonald claims he should be allowed to sell his catch because of the 1999 court ruling.

"That was 18 years ago. They were supposed to put that in place. Why haven't they done that? I have that right. It is my right," he said.

Dave McDonald's fishing boat bobs in the water off Saulnierville, N.S. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

DFO acknowledges the Mi'kmaq have a right to a moderate living, but only in a fishery that follows regulations.

"In order to have a sustainable use of the resource, we have to have a regulated fishery," says Morley Knight, a DFO assistant deputy minister in Ottawa.

"We have to know how many participants, we have to know what amount of gear they are using, we have to be regulating the catch that all the participants take," he tells CBC News.

9 years of negotiation with no resolution

Negotiations to create a First Nations "moderate livelihood" fishery have been underway since 2008 between Canada, Nova Scotia and Mi'kmaq participants. The Mi'kmaq want a separate moderate livelihood fishery, distinct from the commercial fishery.

"They are complex, they are difficult  decisions. The fishery resource is highly sought after by all parties," Knight says. "Finding a way to satisfy everyone's desires and wishes in the way the fisheries is managed is a complicated situation."

Morley Knight, a DFO assistant deputy minister in Ottawa, says fisheries must follow the regulations. (CBC)

Since the Marshall decision, successive federal governments have been integrating individual bands into the commercial fishery, which it controls through licence conditions.

Despite some frustration both inside and outside of First Nations communities, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans considers the effort a success.

"There has been a tremendous amount of progress made in some communities, in terms of their participation in the fishery, in terms of the number of vessels they have, the employment they generate from that fishery and the economic value to the communities," Knight says.

'Moderate livelihood' conditions

But as his boat bobs dockside in Saulnierville, Dave McDonald is not satisfied.

He wants Sipekne'katik to issue its own "moderate livelihood" tags.

"I'm hoping our band, our leaders will put that in place themselves … because our people need to make a moderate living," he says.

Sipekne'katik Chief Mike Sack says the "right to moderate living" is a justification for band members who sell lobsters caught in the food and ceremonial fishery.

However, he says the band has not created its own fishery under those conditions.


Paul Withers


Paul Withers is an award-winning journalist whose career started in the 1970s as a cartoonist. He has been covering Nova Scotia politics for more than 20 years.