Nova Scotia

Fishery growth has had positive impact on First Nations in the Maritimes: report

An academic who studied Canada's response to the Marshall decision says it has been a First Nations success story, fuelled by an increase in band-held commercial fishing licenses that have generated dramatically higher revenues.

Academic who studied Canada's response to 1999 ruling says it's brought millions to Mi'kmaw communities

A Mi’kmaw community in Nova Scotia launched its own self-regulated, rights-based lobster fishery in September. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

An increase in band-held commercial fishing licences since the Marshall ruling on Indigenous treaty rights has generated dramatically higher revenues for First Nations in the Maritimes, says an academic who studied Ottawa's response to the landmark Supreme Court of Canada decision in 1999. 

This is despite "understandable" frustration the Mi'kmaq and Wolastoqiyik (Maliseet) feel over the Marshall decision's promise of a right to earn a moderate livelihood while fishing, said Ken Coates, a senior fellow with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.

"The federal government spent a lot of money and over a long period of time. But [the First Nations] actually got a fairly good return. It doesn't mean that all the issues are resolved, as we know, in Nova Scotia, but at least they've been trying," said Coates.

In a study published last fall by the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, Coates examined the impact of the Marshall decision on its 20th anniversary.

Some of the study's key findings include:

  • Ottawa has spent $545 million since 1999 buying out commercial licences and building capacity so First Nations could enter the commercial fishery in a meaningful way.
  • In 2009, Maritime bands held 1,238 commercial fishing licences out of a total of 11,727 licences in the region. That's up from 316 in 1999.
  • Landings by First Nations accounted for six per cent of the total market for all species in the region in 2016. 
  • In 2016, those licences generated $126 million in revenue for bands in the Maritimes, up from $3 million in 1999. The entire East Coast fishery generated $2.2 billion in 2016. 
  • In 2018, the Maritime bands operated 320 vessels, employed 1,461 harvesters and 234 captains.

The Nova Scotia numbers

The Marshall decision has deep roots in Nova Scotia. At the centre of the ruling was Donald Marshall Jr., a Mi'kmaw man from Membertou First Nation in Cape Breton. 

On Sept. 17, 1999, the Supreme Court ruled that Marshall, charged with fishing eels outside of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans [DFO] regulated season, was justified in doing so — under the 1760s Peace and Friendship Treaties.

Nova Scotia First Nations have taken advantage of the entry provided by Ottawa since 1999, accumulating more licences as their fisheries grew.

According to Coates, Pictou Landing First Nation had one community-owned lobster boat in 1999. Today, it owns 20 boats and holds 13 lobster and eight snow crab licences.

Eskasoni First Nation, in Cape Breton, holds 11 of 28 shrimp licences in Nova Scotia.

In Nova Scotia alone, the 2016-17 season generated $52 million in band revenue from a variety of species, up from $2.5 million in 1999.

Coates said the impact of the growing fishery has been substantial in First Nations communities, reflected in improved income, business development and unemployment rates.

"What is really hard to quantify, but it is there in those numbers somewhere, is actually the impact on pride, self-worth, the sense of control of their own destiny," Coates said.

"One of the things the Marshall decision did was it recognized something that non-Indigenous people had failed to recognize for 200 years. And that was that their 18th-century treaties were valid, were alive and guaranteed you a place in the economy."

The unfinished business of 'moderate living'

The Supreme Court's decision guaranteed the Mi'kmaq the constitutional right to a "moderate living," without defining it, and that has been an ongoing source of frustration for First Nations and uncertainty for the industry.

Coates does not share the view of some Mi'kmaw leaders who blame the federal government entirely for failing to define a "moderate livelihood" in regulation.

"It isn't fair to say the Government of Canada has ignored that. They've tried to negotiate it. It isn't fair to say the Mi'kmaq have ignored it. They pushed really, really hard," he said.

"It is such a strange requirement that it really begs the question why the Supreme Court put it there in the first place. But it is a constraint on the aspirations and ambitions of First Nations in Nova Scotia. And I don't blame them for being frustrated."

Tensions erupt after years of calm

In 2019, the Sipekne'katik First Nation in Nova Scotia sold lobster on a Digby wharf to make a statement about their treaty rights. 

In September, Sipekne'katik launched a self-regulated, "moderate livelihood " lobster fishery. It's taking place while the commercial season in the area is closed.

The band, which holds 30 commercial fishing licences, said it's exercising the treaty right recognized by the Marshall decision. So far, 10 licences have been issued to band members, who receive 50 lobster trap tags.

The numbers involved in the livelihood fishery so far are minuscule compared to the commercial fishery — a single commercial lobster boat carries 350 traps.

N.S. lobster dispute could have lasting consequences

2 years ago
Duration 2:02
There are growing calls for Ottawa to intervene in an escalating dispute between Mi’kmaq lobster fishers and commercial fishers in Nova Scotia, which could cause a ripple effect across the country as Indigenous groups assert their right to the resources.

Non-Indigenous fishermen have protested members of the Sipekne'katik band fishing when the season is closed. They say that catching lobster outside the mandated season, particularly during the summer spawning period, will negatively impact stocks.

Shortly after the self-regulated fishery was launched, commercial fishermen hauled up lobster traps set by Mi'kmaw fishermen. They dumped the traps in the parking lot of a nearby Department of Fisheries and Oceans office in Meteghan, N.S.

Mi'kmaw traps hauled up by non-Indigenous fishermen were stacked in front of a federal fisheries office in Meteghan, N.S., on Sept. 21, 2020. (Jeorge Sadi/CBC)

Sipekne'katik officials argue the amount of lobster that will be harvested and sold is tiny compared to what's caught during the commercial season that begins in late November and runs until the end of May. Some fisheries experts agree that the small scale of the Mi'kmaw fishery is not a threat to conservation efforts

Mike Sack, chief of Sipekne'katik First Nation, said earlier this week that talks are progressing with the federal government about the moderate livelihood fishery. 

Two other Nova Scotia bands are poised to launch their own self-regulated fisheries outside DFO regulations and seasons.

Coates said it's no surprise the Mi'kmaw moderate livelihood fishery has commercial fishermen concerned.

"It has created this enormous uncertainty for the non-Indigenous fishers. You don't know where it's going to go," he said.

Updated list shows 2,377 Maritime licences

Late Thursday afternoon, DFO provided a list of commercial fishing licences held by bands in Atlantic Canada. The data indicates the number of commercial licences held by bands is larger than reported by Coates.

In the Maritimes, bands hold 2,377 licences out of the total amount of approximately 11,500. 

In Nova Scotia, First Nations hold 684 commercial licences with the Native Council of Nova Scotia, which includes

  • Mime'j Seafoods Limited (118)
  • Pictou Landing (146)
  • Acadia (84)
  • Millbrook (64)
  • Eskasoni (53)
  • Wagmatcook (44)
  • Sipekne'katik (37)
  • Paqtnkek (36)
  • Membertou (34)
  • Glooscap (31)
  • Annapolis Valley (25)
  • Waycobah (20)
  • Chapel Island (16)
  • Bear River (14)
  • Potlotek (6)
  • Afton (1)
  • We'koqma'q (1)

On Prince Edward Island, bands hold 772 commercial licences in Lennox Island (353), Abegweit (201), and the Native Council of P.E.I. (218).

In New Brunswick the total is 921, with Elsipogtog holding 333 and Esgenoôpetitj with 163.

In Quebec, Wolastoqiyik (Maliseet) and Mi'kmaw bands hold 74 licences.

Indigenous communities located in the department's Newfoundland region, which includes Miawpukek, Qalipu, Innu, Nunatsiavut, Nunatukavut community council and Mi'kmaq, hold 397.


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.