Nova Scotia

Indigenous fishermen can't be blamed for 'trying to make a living,' chief says amid lobster dispute

A prominent Nova Scotia First Nation chief says he does not blame Mi'kmaq fishermen if they are using their ceremonial fishing licences to try to make a moderate living outside the commercial lobster season.

Chief Terry Paul says Ottawa needs to settle outstanding issues from Marshall decision

There have been tensions over the Indigenous out-of-season lobster fishery in southwest Nova Scotia. (CBC)

A prominent Nova Scotia First Nation chief says he does not blame Mi'kmaq fishermen if they are using their ceremonial fishing licences to try to make a moderate living outside the commercial lobster season.

"Some of the communities, their unemployment and poverty is unacceptable," said Membertou First Nation Chief Terry Paul, who is co-chair of the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi'kmaq Chiefs and holds the fisheries portfolio for the assembly.

"If that happened anywhere else in the country there would be a riot, there would be a war. But it seems to be OK to be kept that way in our communities. A lot of our communities are tired of waiting and tired of being poor. I can't blame them for trying to make a living for their families."

Fishermen protested at Department of Fisheries and Oceans offices and at wharves around southwest Nova Scotia earlier this month. (Paul Palmeter/CBC)

His comments come after a month of tensions in southwest Nova Scotia. Non-Indigenous fishermen have been protesting at wharves, calling for the Department and Fisheries and Oceans to intervene in what they say is the illegal sale of lobster by some First Nations fishermen.

The lobster fishermen accuse the Sipekne'katik Band of using their right to fish for food, social and ceremonial purposes as a cloak to illegally sell their catch outside the commercial fishing season, which ended in May and won't resume until late November.

Large amounts of lobster, much of it undersized, was recently found dumped in the woods in Weymouth and DFO officials have admitted the illegal activity is likely happening in St. Marys Bay.

Bugs crawling over discarded lobster in Weymouth, N.S. (Stephanie Blanchet/Radio-Canada)

But Paul said the real issue is the need for more guidance from the federal government.

On Thursday, he said Ottawa must define and deliver on a 1999 Supreme Court of Canada ruling in the Marshall case that said First Nations are entitled to a moderate living from the fishery.

"The benefits in the fishery, economically, is a stark, stark difference between our communities and the outside of our communities," he said.

"We occupy, I think, less than one per cent of the fishery, for God's sake. We need more access, and do it in such a way where everyone knows about it and we're free to fish for our livelihood."

Sipekne'katik Chief Mike Sack has previously said he believes his people are entitled to earn a moderate living from the fishery, above and beyond landing lobster for food, social and ceremonial purposes.

Membertou First Nation Chief Terry Paul. (CBC)

This year, the Trudeau government has taken conspicuous steps to improve First Nations access to fisheries in Atlantic Canada.

Earlier this month, DFO set aside 25 per cent of Canada's East Coast surf clam quota — about 10,000 tonnes — for a First Nation enterprise.

The decision ended a longstanding monopoly by Halifax-based Clearwater Seafoods. The company had recently spent tens of millions of dollars on new vessels.

In April, DFO also promised First Nations 1,100 tonnes of snow crab from the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence. It was the first time in 14 years a Canadian government took fish quota from a commercial fishery and awarded it to First Nations.

Paul acknowledged the steps but said they fall short of meeting Ottawa's obligation to allow First Nations a moderate livelihood from the fishery.

"I think the government needs to go faster. It is doing some things in access but I think that they need to move quicker, where we end up in a situation where we are all compatible in the fishery."


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.