Nova Scotia·Q&A

Canada's only Mi'kmaw MP searches for way forward in fisheries dispute

MP Jaime Battiste says he’s working to find a solution to the standoff in Saulnierville, N.S., where commercial fishermen are protesting the recent launch of a Mi’kmaw-regulated lobster fishery.

Jaime Battiste says he’s saddened to see historic allies at odds over the moderate livelihood fishery

It's been one week since Sipekne'katik First Nation celebrated the launch of its moderate livelihood fishery near Saulnierville, N.S. (Jeorge Sadi/CBC)

Canada's only Mi'kmaw member of parliament says he's working to find a solution to the standoff near Saulnierville, N.S., where commercial fishers are protesting a Mi'kmaq-regulated lobster fishery that launched one week ago.

Jaime Battiste, MP for Sydney-Victoria, said he plans to meet with Mi'kmaw senators Dan Christmas and Brian Francis on Friday as "we try to put pen to paper and say what could this look like?"

"We have to figure out a way to co-develop a fisheries that takes into account conservation, that takes into account safety, that takes into account the views of the other fishermen," Battiste told CBC's Information Morning on Thursday.

"But we also need to realize that after 20 years, it's time for us to figure out a way to create a shared resource in that area and to make sure that we're doing it for the next seven generations."

The Sipekne'katik First Nation celebrated the launch of its own rights-based lobster fishery last Thursday on the 21st anniversary of the historic Supreme Court of Canada Marshall decision that affirmed the Mi'kmaw right to fish for a "moderate livelihood."

But in the week since, the fishery has been met with growing anger and frustration from some commercial fishermen who don't want Mi'kmaq fishing outside of the DFO-regulated season. 

Battiste spoke with Portia Clark, host of CBC's Information Morning, about where both sides can go from here. Their conversation has been edited for clarity and length. 

What do you make of what's been taking place at the wharf in Saulnierville?

I think it's a sad thing. I was down there three days ago because I wanted to hear from the constituents that I have down there that have gone down to show solidarity. I saw that you have the Mi'kmaq on one side of the wharf and then I saw, you know, the other side of the wharf and the Acadian flags, and I just thought how sad it was, because historically these groups have been allies. 

Jaime Battiste is the Liberal member of parliament in Sydney-Victoria. (Gary Mansfield/CBC)

I remember hearing a wonderful story from Lt. Gov. Arthur LeBlanc about how the Mi'kmaq saved his family during the 1755 expulsion. When the first French settlers came across in the 1600s, our grand chief showed them the way to survive in this area. 

It's just sad to see that, you know, where we are now is that you have one group protesting is what you called it. You know, I would call it a little bit harsher. It seemed like I saw intimidation and vandalization in some of these videos, and to me, that's not protesting peacefully for sure. But it's unfortunate to see what's going on there with historic allies fighting against each other over a very small, moderate livelihood implementation of rights. 

That seems to be the crux of the issue, though, is the definition of moderate livelihood. How do you understand that term and how it should be arrived at? 

I don't know, maybe the median income of Nova Scotians. But the bottom line is, you know, moderate livelihood can't mean poverty. If the Mi'kmaq have a right for 20 years and they haven't been able to practice that right that was guaranteed by the Supreme Court, that it has to be above poverty. And I've seen the plans that Sipekne'katik has outlined, and it's like a fraction of the actual fisheries. So the question I kind of have to ask is why is there no room in the commercial fishing industry for the Mi'kmaq?

The federal government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on buying lobster licences for Mi'kmaw communities, including Sipekne'katik. They've leased out many of those licences back to non-Indigenous fishermen, and some people are wondering why that doesn't satisfy the right to moderate livelihood?

Because 20 years ago, when these government agreements started, they were clear: government said we realize that we're giving you an access to this right, but this is without prejudice to your Aboriginal and treaty rights. So this wasn't compensation for their treaty right.

I couldn't tell you about leasing out to non-Mi'kmaw fishermen. I live in the Mi'kmaw community of Eskasoni and we have 80 families employed within various parts of the industry, and so I wouldn't say that there is many people that aren't Mi'kmaw fishing for the Eskasoni community. I can only speak to that context. 

The Supreme Court has ruled that the federal government can regulate the Mi'kmaw fishery if there are concerns about conservation if there's consultation, and the government needs to justify its concerns about conservation. So what is a reasonable amount of regulation?

That's one part of the case. People who look at Mi'kmaw case law as a whole, they see something different. I was a professor of this at Cape Breton University and my father has been an academic on this for 40 years. Some of the case law says the honour of the Crown is at stake when dealing with First Nations, and so the first thing that we have to show is that the honour of the Crown has been met as the first part of this. 

And the second part is the only way to justify it is either through safety or conservation methods. Those are the only ways. And if we're to infringe on Mi'kmaw rights, then there has to be compensation for that infringement and there has never been that compensation for that infringement. 

A group of commercial fishermen hauled up band members' traps and left them in front of the DFO office in Meteghan, N.S., on Monday. (Jeorge Sadi/CBC)

That's the biggest part is that you can't just look at the Marshall case. You have to look at the whole crux of case law in Indigenous people since 1982 to really get a full understanding of what the courts have been saying about treaty rights and about Aboriginal rights.

Your government is being criticized for not defining moderate livelihood sooner and previous governments too, of course. How much do you share that point of view or that frustration? 

I get the frustration because it's been 20 years, but, you know, I look at the past five years and all of the progress we've made in terms of making sure that there was a mandate to negotiate this. During the Stephen Harper era, there was no mandate to negotiate this. 

We had a really good meeting between Nova Scotia MPs and Mi'kmaw chiefs last night, in which they were very eloquent in saying this is not just about money or jobs to them. It's about a practice of a way of life that's been integral to our ancestors, for Indigenous knowledge that's passed down through generations through hunting and fishing. 

This is not just about money or jobs to them.- Jaime Battiste, MP for Sydney-Victoria

So it's more about a way of life than it is about money, and they're not willing to take money to get rid of that right that they've practised for generations. Mi'kmaw teachings say that we're connected to the environment and we're stewards of the resource and to ensure that you're looking out for the next seven generations. It's hard to put a price tag on that. 

As chair of the Indigenous Caucus, what else are you hearing as far as how closely other Indigenous people and politicians are watching this case here? 

The biggest thing that we've talked about is education and awareness being the most important thing, along with compassion. You know, what we need is a little bit more understanding and for attempts on both sides to understand each other. You know, politicians can only go so far as their voters allow them, and if our voters don't understand our shared history and what's happening, it's a great challenge. And so we only go as far as our electorate allows us to go and our electorate, for the most part, haven't grown up with the knowledge of Mi'kmaw treaties or the Mi'kmaw worldview.

That was some of the work that I really was proud of that I did under Treaty Education Nova Scotia was trying to show people that we're all in this together and we're groups willing to share, but we're all treaty people.

With files from CBC's Information Morning