PEI

Federal delay in defining fishing rights frustrates Mi'kmaq and commercial industry on P.E.I.

Both the P.E.I. Fishermen's Association and the Island’s Mi’kmaq First Nations are pointing the finger at the federal government for confusion over Indigenous rights to fish lobster on the Atlantic coast.

‘The Marshall decision … affirmed our right to fish for a moderate livelihood’

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 has launched its own Mi’kmaq-regulated, rights-based lobster fishery. (Nic Meloney/CBC)

Both the P.E.I. Fishermen's Association and the Island's Mi'kmaq First Nations are pointing the finger at the federal government for confusion over Indigenous rights to fish lobster on the Atlantic coast.

In 1999, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the Mi'kmaq have a right to earn a moderate livelihood from fishing, but there is no overarching definition for moderate livelihood. Each First Nation has to negotiate its own agreement with DFO.

In Nova Scotia's St. Mary's Bay, the Sipekne'katik First Nation launched a fishery earlier this month without an agreement with DFO, angering some commercial fishermen in the area.

P.E.I.'s two Mi'kmaq First Nations have responded by saying they are interested in operating a moderate-livelihood fishery on the Island as well. 

"The Marshall decision was clear. It affirmed our right to fish for a moderate livelihood," said Lennox Island First Nation Chief Darlene Bernard in a statement to CBC News.

"It is now 21 years later and DFO has not established regulations for our moderate-livelihood fishery and, more importantly, they have not consulted us on establishing regulations."

Under the court decision, the moderate-living fishery would be determined through a nation-to-nation negotiation. In a statement to CBC News, federal Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan affirmed that is the way Ottawa intends to proceed.

"Our government is committed to working with Mi'kmaw communities in the Maritimes to implement this right," wrote Jordan.

'Frustration on all sides'

The decades of delay have led to unnecessary confusion — and ultimately, conflict, says the P.E.I. Fishermen's Association.

"There's frustration on all sides in terms of people understanding what they can and can't do in the fishery," executive director Ian MacPherson told Island Morning host Laura Chapin.

"That undefined term, a moderate livelihood, was something that should have been determined many years ago. Because it hasn't been, we're seeing a lot of different interpretations out there."

PEIFA executive director Ian MacPherson says the decades of delay have led to unnecessary confusion. (CBC)

MacPherson said the PEIFA understands the negotiations are nation-to-nation, but he still feels local commercial fishermen should play a part.

"At the end of the day, we're a big part of the fishery and people are talking about the future of the fishery and it's really important that the fishing organizations be included in that dialogue," he said.

'Our fight is with Canada'

Bernard said the input of the PEIFA is welcome, but there are limits to their involvement.

"Our rights-based negotiations will be between the First Nations and the Crown," wrote Bernard.

She added that patience in the Indigenous community is growing short, but emphasized the Island Mi'kmaq have no quarrel with the PEIFA.

"Our fight is not with the commercial fisherman. Our fight is with Canada. Canada must respect our constitutional right to our treaty fishery and Canada must do more than talk," Bernard wrote.

Lennox Island Chief Darlene Bernard emphasized the Island Mi'kmaq have no quarrel with the PEIFA. (Nicole Williams/CBC)

"The words of support for reconciliation are not enough. Our councils are frustrated, and our people are frustrated."

Jordan agreed the input of commercial fishermen is valuable, but said they will not have a seat at the table.

"We are also in regular communications with industry across Atlantic Canada to hear their perspectives, as we believe constructive dialogue is the best way forward," wrote Jordan.

"The conversations with industry, however, are outside of any formal negotiations with First Nations."

More from CBC P.E.I.

With files from Island Morning

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