Nova Scotia

Potlotek First Nation celebrates Treaty Day by launching its own rights-based lobster fishery

Potlotek First Nation in Cape Breton marked Treaty Day this year by launching its own Mi'kmaq-regulated rights-based lobster fishery just weeks after the launch of a similar fishery in southwest Nova Scotia.

Celebrations were held across the province for Treaty Day, which kicks off Mi'kmaq History Month

Mi’kmaw harvesters from Potlotek First Nation took to the water on St. Peter’s Bay to launch a moderate livelihood fishery on Oct. 1, 2020. (Brent Kelloway/CBC)

Potlotek First Nation in Cape Breton marked Treaty Day this year by launching its own Mi'kmaq-regulated rights-based lobster fishery.

The celebration in St. Peters Bay on Thursday drew about 100 people and comes just two weeks after another Mi'kmaw community began operating a similar fishery in southwest Nova Scotia.

Wilbert Marshall, chief of Potlotek, said launching a fishery on Treaty Day underscores the importance of the Peace and Friendship Treaties that were signed many years ago and still matter today. 

"We're not looking to make a killing on fishing. We just want to make a moderate livelihood, which we don't really have an idea how much that is yet," Marshall told CBC's Maritime Noon earlier in the day.

Potlotek First Nation Chief Wilbert Marshall says his band's fishery plan will include enforcement protocols authorized by the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans. (CBC)

"I want to let my community decide, let the nation decide. They want to buy a house, they want to build a house. Hopefully this will open some doors." 

He said he didn't know how many licences would be issued on the first day of the fishery, but that each licence holder would be given 70 traps, with 200 traps per boat. 

Potlotek's fishery will operate from Oct. 1 to Dec. 1 throughout Unama'ki (Cape Breton), Marshall said.

He said the community's fishery plan has been in the works for about three months and has been shared with the federal government. Marshall said he's also been in talks with commercial fishermen in the area. 

"Nobody wants to butt heads. We don't want to see what happened in Digby. We don't want to see that here. You don't want your kids seeing all that," Marshall said.

Treaty Day kicks off Mi'kmaq History Month and celebrations were held across the province on Thursday. This year, they hold special meaning, said Katlin Tomer from Sipekne'katik First Nation.

About 100 people from Potlotek First Nation and surrounding areas visited St. Peters Bay to celebrate the launch of a moderate livelihood fishery on Oct. 1, 2020. (Brent Kelloway/CBC)

She was in Saulnierville today for a mawi-omi, or gathering of traditional dancing and drumming.

"Being here at this dock today and having the celebrations being brought to our fishermen, is awesome. I mean, I'm 100 per cent happy to be here," she said. 

We're going to celebrate with our people and have a healing type of day.- Chief Mike Sack, Sipekne'katik First Nation

The Treaty Day celebration was a chance to commemorate the launch of the band's self-regulated lobster fishery after several days of dispute between Mi'kmaw fishers and many commercial lobster fishermen.

"We're going to celebrate with our people and have a healing type of day for our people to put what happened behind us and just to pray for all of those involved and be grateful that it's safe and no one was hurt during those incidents," Chief Mike Sack told CBC's Information Morning earlier in the day.

In Saulnierville, N.S., Treaty Day was celebrated by traditional dancers in regalia and drummers. (Héloise Rodriguez-Qizilbash/Radio-Canada)

Sipekne'katik's fishery was launched on Sept. 17, exactly 21 years after the Supreme Court ruling in the case of Donald Marshall Jr. The landmark decision affirmed the right for the Mi'kmaq to earn a "moderate livelihood" from fishing.

Despite the backlash from some commercial fishers, Sack said he's feeling good.

"It was a little rough road to get here, but I think that everything's going to work out well as it should and our treaties will be upheld and we'll get back to a better life for our people and enjoy it," he said.

Treaty Day a celebration, despite recent tensions over Indigenous fishery

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People from all over the Maritimes attended in support of moderate livelihood for fishermen.

On the other side of the province, Membertou First Nation celebrated Treaty Day with a food fishery celebration. Five vessels set out from the Sydport Wharf, as about 40 people from the community watched on shore.

"It was pretty emotional seeing the boats going out to fish for food and we have the community here supporting them," said Chief Terry Paul of Membertou First Nation. "It's a fishery that's really, really important to us and has been with us for thousands of years."

Paul said he believes the industry is beginning to understand that fishing is a right of the Mi'kmaq.

"It is a very, very significant day … and I think that Marshall [Jr.] who started all this, I think he's smiling right now," he said.

Chief Terry Paul speaks during the food fishery celebration on Treaty Day. (Brent Kelloway/CBC)

This week, a group of Mi'kmaw parliamentarians, including Cape Breton MP Jaime Battiste, called for the creation of an Atlantic First Nations Fisheries Authority to help find a way forward. The new authority would bypass the system in use at Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

Sack said his community wasn't part of those discussions and it doesn't have anything to do with their fishery plan. 

"We're here. We're fighting for our right. We're not negotiating," he told reporters at the celebration.

On Thursday, Premier Stephen McNeil said it's time for the federal government to sit down with  both Mi'kmaw and commercial fishermen at the same time to find a way forward.

"This is not going away, and it's been 21 years in the making," McNeil told reporters. "The courts have made a decision on the Marshall decision. Now, all sides have to come together to fully implement what that really meant around the issue of a modern livelihood."

With files from Information Morning, Maritime Noon, Brent Kelloway and Héloise Rodriguez-Qizilbash