Abegweit First Nation says it won't launch treaty lobster fishery off P.E.I. this year

The Abegweit First Nation, based at Scotchfort, P.E.I., says it won't be launching a moderate livelihood fishery this year.

Community says it won't follow Lennox Island without federal agreement in place

Abegweit First Nations Chief Junior Gould says he, his council and advisors will continue to negotiate with Department of Fisheries and Oceans, but feel the federal government is not coming to the table in good faith. (Steve Bruce/CBC)

The Abegweit First Nation says it won't be launching a treaty lobster fishery this year.

The community held a press conference on Friday saying it is still negotiating with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) to get an agreement on the fishery, clarifying that it will not follow the decision of Lennox Island First Nation to launch such a fishery without the federal government's support.

Once it finalizes an agreement, Abegweit said it will launch its self-regulated moderate livelihood fishery when the community deems it is the right time.

"What's happening in Lennox Island and the implementation of their moderate livelihood is well within their right to do so, and I applaud the community for doing that," Abegweit Chief Junior Gould said Friday. "My brothers and sisters are exercising their right, and I think it's a great thing for First Nation people across the country. 

"At the same time, we are not at the same stage, we are not on the same level, and the negotiations are completely different."

Separate nations, separate approaches

Gould wants to make sure all commercial fishers on the Island realize Lennox Island and Abegweit are separate communities, and Abegweit is conducting its own negotiations with DFO independently. 

Abegweit First Nation fishes commercially using communal licences owned by the band, and the chief said he is proud of the relationships his community has built with non-Indigenous harvesters in the surrounding area.

Gould said the First Nation wants to continue to fish in harmony with its non-Indigenous neighbours, with whom it has built great relations. (Steve Bruce/CBC)

Tensions have periodically risen between Indigenous and non-Indigenous lobster fishers in Atlantic Canada as the legal landscape has changed.

In the fall of 2020, the Sipekne'katik First Nation in Nova Scotia launched a moderate livelihood fishery without an understanding in place with DFO. Non-Indigenous commercial fishers objected to the fishery, resulting in violence and a fire that levelled a Mi'kmaw lobster facility.

"The Abegweit First Nation for years has done very well fishing beside them," Gould said of P.E.I.'s non-Indigenous commercial fishers, adding: "We are 100-per-cent First Nation owned and operated. We are proud of that.

We want to work with everybody to benefit our community because our community can benefit the neighbours.- Chief Junior Gould, Abegweit First Nation

"I don't see a lot of rhetoric from the fishermen. I see a lot of frustration towards the federal government inability to come to an agreement."

Gould said Abegweit received an offer from the DFO two weeks ago during moderate livelihood fishery talks, but was not satisfied with it.

"They brought nothing to the table but trinkets and beads," the chief, who is also a fisherman, told the news conference.

"This is not good-faith negotiation.... I have the numbers, I have the knowledge, I've fished my entire life."

The community was invited to hear about Abegweit's fishery plans at a press conference on Friday morning, where Chief Junior Gould sat surrounded by his council and advisors on the fisheries matter. (Steve Bruce/CBC)

In a response to CBC News, DFO officials said the department is actively working with First Nations across the Maritime provinces and the Gaspe region of Quebec to further implement their treaty right to fish, while maintaining "healthy fisheries for all harvesters for generations to come."

"The Government of Canada is committed to advancing reconciliation," the statement read. 

"DFO has been in discussions with Abegweit First Nation over the last few months. We cannot disclose the details of those discussions at this time."

On Thursday, Lennox Island Chief Darlene Bernard said the community intends to launch a treaty fishery on May 7 without Ottawa's sign-off.

Rights and restrictions

That right of Indigenous peoples to fish for a moderate livlihood was affirmed by the Supreme Court of Canada in the 1999 Marshall ruling.

However, Canada's top court clarified the same year that the federal government could still regulate Mi'kmaw fishers if there were concerns about conservation and the overall health of a particular fish stock.

The court did say DFO would need to be in consultation with Indigenous groups.

Bernard told CBC News that if there is any violence aimed at Lennox Island treaty lobster boats or crews, the band will consider DFO responsible.

Abegweit does not have its own harbour, and community members in the commercial fishery fish out of north shore harbours along the eastern part of the province, like Red Head. (Steve Bruce/CBC)

Lennox Island will conduct its treaty fishery out of its own wharf on P.E.I.'s North Shore, something Abegweit does not have. That's among the factors that Gould says came into play leading up to his community's decision to hold off on a treaty fishery. 

I think with truth and friendship, these negotiations should be done with everybody.- Chief Junior Gould

"We have to enter a neighbouring community ... and engage in a good-faith, communal exercise of access to that harbour," Abegweit's chief said.

"I think with truth and friendship, these negotiations should be done with everybody."

Gould he took issue with a statement released by the P.E.I. Fishermen's Association on Thursday, which he felt unfairly implied all First Nations were coming from the same place with regard to fishing.

He said the P.E.I. Fishermen's Association should be included in the Indigenous fishery negotiation process, but as a stakeholder, not a decision-maker.

"I'm asking them to be engaged through transparency and inclusion with the process. And that's the difference that we're doing here. We want to work with everybody to benefit our community because our community can benefit the neighbours, " he said

"What I've asked for, for my community, is well within reason."