Nova Scotia

Senate committee presents plan for peaceful fishery that sidelines DFO for Indigenous groups

A standing senate committee said First Nations fishing groups shouldn't have to negotiate with Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) for harvesting agreements.

First Nations shouldn't have to negotiate with Fisheries and Oceans, committee says

A man wearing a suit and tie, sitting, and speaking into a microphone.
Sen. Dan Christmas speaking in Halifax on Tuesday. (CBC)

A senate committee was in Halifax Tuesday to present its plan for a peaceful fishery for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous fishermen.

The standing senate committee on Fisheries and Oceans said there will be no peace as long as First Nations fishing groups have to negotiate with Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO). According to Sen. Dan Christmas, from Membertou, N.S., the root of the issue is racism.

"The Department of Fisheries and Oceans and the RCMP have done little to protect First Nations from these acts of violence," Christmas said.

The tension between Indigenous and non-Indigenous fishing reached its boiling point two years ago, when Sipekne'katik First Nation launched its moderate livelihood fishery in St. Marys Bay, N.S. There was intimidation on and off the water and a fire destroyed a lobster pound where Mi'kmaw fishers were storing their catch.
Key to the proposed plan is to sideline DFO and leave it to the Department of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs to negotiate rights-based fishing agreements. DFO could act as advisers.

"As long as you both have First Nations fisheries and non-First Nations fisheries under DFO, it's never going to work," Christmas said.

Donald Marshall Jr., accompanied by Mi'kmaq Grand Chief Ben Sylliboy, right, walks through Sydney, N.S., in a peaceful protest over native fishing rights in 2000. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

The other key recommendation deals with how Indigenous fishers are granted licenses.

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The senators are calling on the government to abandon the buyback policy that allowed First Nations communities to fish only when non-Indigenous fishers sold a license. Christmas said a better model is redistributing quota.

"I find it very weird that our constitutionally treaty-based rights are subject to buyback approaches," Christmas said. "If licenses aren't available, then Mi'kmaw people don't fish even though we have [the Marshall decision], even though we have constitutionally protected rights."

The Marshall decision is the historic ruling recognized First Nations' rights to earn a moderate living from fishing, but the government has never defined what that means.

"The fact is that we have produced a framework to try to move this issue forward," said Sen. Fabian Manning. "And try to find, as our title states, peace on the water."

The recommendations from the senators come just a day after DFO issued a warning that it will not tolerate interference with an Indigenous ceremonial fishery later this summer in St. Marys Bay.


Preston Mulligan has been a reporter in the Maritimes for more than 20 years. Along with his reporting gig, he also hosts CBC Radio's Sunday phone-in show, Maritime Connection.