Nova Scotia

Peacemaker files bleak assessment of N.S. lobster tensions

An envoy hired to defuse tensions over Indigenous lobster fishing in Nova Scotia has released a bleak interim report that highlights poor communication and a lack of trust between Indigenous fishermen and non-Indigenous commercial fishermen.

'Lack of trust and respect' between Indigenous, non-Indigenous fishermen, says report

These men are on opposite sides of the dispute over the Mi’kmaw lobster fishery. On the left, a commercial fisherman with an Acadian flag, on the right a supporter of Sipekne’katik’s rights-based fishery, holding the Mi’kmaw flag. (Taryn Grant/CBC)

An envoy hired to defuse tensions between Indigenous and non-Indigenous commercial lobster fishermen in Nova Scotia has released a bleak interim report highlighting poor communication and a lack of trust between both sides.

The report by Université Sainte-Anne president Allister Surette found perhaps the only thing the fishermen can agree on is blaming the Department of Fisheries and Oceans for the situation.

"The lack of trust and respect has been presented to me by many of the individuals I interviewed," Surette said in his interim report filed with Federal Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan and Carolyn Bennett, minister for Indigenous-Crown relations.

"Firstly, I have heard from Indigenous and non-Indigenous parties of the lack of trust in government," Surette wrote. "Added to this level of the lack of trust and respect, some interviewed also expressed the lack of trust and respect within parties involved in the fishery and I also heard of the lack of trust and respect between Indigenous and non-Indigenous individuals, stakeholder groups and organizations."

Appointed by Ottawa

Surette was named special federal representative by the Trudeau government after an outbreak of violence and protests at the launch of an Indigenous moderate livelihood lobster fishery by the Sipekne'katik band in St. Marys Bay last fall.

Sipekne'katik First Nation issued licences and lobster trap tags to 7 Mi’kmaw harvesters under its fishery. (Nic Meloney/CBC)

The band cited the Mi'kmaq's right to fish in pursuit of a moderate livelihood, recognized by the Supreme Court of Canada in 1999 but never defined by Ottawa.

The fishery was conducted outside of the regulated season for commercial lobster licence holders in Lobster Fishing Area 34, who objected saying the fishery was a blatant violation of fishery regulations.

The reaction included alleged assaults, arson, blockades, volleys of wharfside profanity and online venom. It garnered international attention.

The blowup capped years of tensions over an escalating Sipekne'katik food, social and ceremonial lobster fishery in St. Marys Bay that was, in some cases, used as a cloak for a commercial fishery. Lobster caught under food, social and ceremonial licences cannot be sold.

In one case, a Crown prosecutor said the lobster caught under those licences from Sipekne'katik supplied an international "black market operation."

Despite a number of federal initiatives to integrate the Mi'kmaq into the fishery since 1999 — including half a billion dollars for training and buying out and providing commercial licences — there has been a lack of progress defining moderate livelihood and implementing the fishery.

After decades of differing opinions and debate on First Nations’ right to earn a 'moderate livelihood' while fishing, affirmed by a landmark Supreme Court ruling in 1999, a Mi’kmaw community in Nova Scotia launched its own rights-based lobster fishery. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

Expectations of the First Nations were not met, leaving many of them to doubt the sincerity of DFO, Surette reported.

Debate over enforcement

Surette said the issue is complex and will not be easily solved. Non-Indigenous fishermen have argued there is not enough enforcement when it comes to Indigenous lobster fishing while the bands have complained of harassment.

"However, the point to note on this matter, and more closely related to my mandate, seems to be the lack of clear direction from the government of Canada and the multiple facets and complexity of implementing the right to fish in pursuit of a moderate livelihood," he said in the report.

Surette's mandate is not to negotiate but rather to "restore confidence, improve relations" and make recommendations to the politicians. His interim report calls for more dialogue to build trust, suggesting areas of declared common interest like conservation and marketing.

A lack of information from DFO was a recurrent complaint from the commercial fishermen, said Surette.

"There should be some type of formal process for the non-Indigenous to be kept up to speed, especially the harvesters, since this could affect their livelihood. Some process, even though they're not involved in negotiation, that they could have input or at least understand what's going on," he told CBC Radio's Information Morning on Friday.

Improving communication

He made three suggestions for improving communication: a clearinghouse for accurate information, a formal process for talks between the commercial industry and the government of Canada, and forums to create a "safe space" to talk on important issues without extreme emotions.

Allister Surette was named special federal representative by the Trudeau government after violence and protests greeted the launch of an Indigenous moderate livelihood lobster fishery by the Sipekne'katik band in St. Marys Bay last fall. (Université Sainte-Anne )

Surette interviewed 85 people — 81 per cent were non-Indigenous.

"In some cases, they were heavily focused on the fishery. Others said that they preferred dealing with the ministers at this present time," he told CBC News.

Surette said he will be reaching out to gather more perspectives.


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.