P.E.I. Mi'kmaq chiefs say they will launch a livelihood fishery after community consultation

The chiefs of P.E.I.’s two First Nations, Abegweit and Lennox Island, say they are looking at how to proceed with launching a moderate livelihood fishery in the province.

'It's not all of the sudden, you know, it's been ongoing for 21 years'

Mi’kmaw vessels were met by up to 50 fishing boats from several non-Indigenous fishing communities off the coast of the Saulnierville, N.S., wharf last week as they dropped their first moderate livelihood lobster traps. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

The chiefs of P.E.I.'s two First Nations, Abegweit and Lennox Island, say they are in the first phases of community consultation over what launching a moderate livelihood fishery in the province may look like — regardless of whether they reach an agreement with Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

This comes after the Sipekne'katik First Nation launched its new self-regulated fishery in Saulnierville, N.S. last week. It was launched on Thursday, exactly 21 years after a landmark Supreme Court of Canada ruling in the case of Donald Marshall Jr.

On Sept. 17, 1999, the court ruled that Marshall, charged with fishing eels outside of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans regulated season, was justified in doing so — under the 1760s Peace and Friendship Treaties.

The decision recognized the First Nations' right to earn a moderate living from fishing, but also comes with a limitation: the federal government retains the authority to regulate that fishery in the public interest and for conservation.

Tensions between Indigenous and non-Indigenous fishers have been running high in Saulnierville since the Sipekne'katik First Nation launched their fishery.

Meanwhile, in P.E.I., the chiefs of both First Nations say they have also been looking for clarity on what a moderate livelihood means since the Marshall decision.

"We will launch a livelihood fishery," said Lennox Island First Nation Chief Darlene Bernard. "When we're going to do it, I don't know the answer to that, because I have to consult with my community.

"Regardless of what happens in the next weeks or months, we are going to continue to engage our community and we're going to have to put together our plan."

"It's not all of the sudden, you know, it's been ongoing for 21 years," said Abegweit First Nation Chief Junior Gould. 

"We're not being counterproductive and we're trying to be a part of the industry. We want to work with the industry to help us determine it. "

Federal talks going nowhere

On Friday, Bernard and Gould put out a joint statement. In it, they outlined the difference between the commercial fishery, with a set season and catch limits, and the moderate livelihood fishery granted under treaty rights, which grants Indigenous people the ability to provide necessities, such as food, clothing and housing.

Abegweit First Nation Chief Junior Gould and Lennox Island First Nation Chief Darlene Bernard issued their written statement Friday. (CBC)

"It is important to note that our current commercial fishery is not a rights-based fishery and it follows DFO limits and rules," the statement read. 

"Our increased commercial access happened as a result of the Marshall decision and it has been very valuable for our community, but it is not the moderate livelihood fishery we have been fighting to have implemented since Marshall."

According to a release from the Sipekne'katik First Nation, previous discussions with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans have been unsuccessful due to a lack of shared understanding about what a "moderate livelihood" means.

The P.E.I. chiefs echoed this in their statement and said they have communicated this on many occasions, including in a letter to the minister last month. 

They said the letter indicated that they would be preparing to go ahead with their own livelihood fishery if the federal government was not willing to help them find solutions to implement the rights granted under Marshall.

"We're at the beginning stages of consultation with our communities to see what they envision the livelihood fishery to be," said Bernard. 

"When we implement our livelihood fishery, it's going to be well thought out, well planned, have solid governance structures and enforcement things in place."

The Sipekne'katik First Nation has so far distributed licenses and lobster trap tags to seven Mi'kmaw fishers. Each license can fish up to 50 traps, a process which will be monitored and governed by the First Nation. 

"This is a culmination of many, many years of trying to bring the federal government to the negotiating table to discuss the livelihood fishery for the Mi'kmaq," Bernard said. 

"It comes from frustration. It comes from government not truly wanting to engage the First Nations and how that we shape our livelihood fishery."

Tensions high in Saulnierville

Last Tuesday morning, hundreds of non-Indigenous commercial fishermen set up lobster-trap blockades in Saulnierville to protest what they said were "illegal" fisheries in St. Marys Bay.

Officials with the Sipekne'katik First Nation said their first livelihood traps were cut and when Mi'kmaw fishermen went back out to recover their gear, they were chased by boats wielding flares.

On Friday morning in Saulnierville, a group of boats belonging to non-Indigenous fishers could be seen circling the mouth of the harbour in front of the docked Mi'kmaw vessels. Two people were later arrested and the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi'kmaw Chiefs declared a state of emergency in response to "violence occurring over Mi'kmaq fisheries across the province."

Abegweit First Nation Chief Junior Gould saw the scene playing out over social media and went over to Saulnierville with about 20 other people on the weekend.

"It looked like an unfair situation and something that was needing support, so I made the decision as chief and as a leader to be there as an observer and a supporter," he said.

"We have a right to feed our family. We have a right to take care of our children. We have a right to determine our own destiny."

Crowds of commercial fishermen at the Saulnierville, N.S., wharf where they temporarily blocked access on Wednesday morning. (CBC)

Gould said following the lead of the Sipekne'katik First Nation in launching its own fishery is not the first choice for his First Nation, but may be necessary if negotiations don't progress.

"We've always fished within the seasons, within the parameters, but it hasn't gotten us anywhere in 21 years," said Gould.

"I'm hoping that people will come to the table in good faith negotiations and we'll be able to come to a resolution and determine what a moderate living is."

The Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi'kmaw Chiefs has called for Fisheries and Oceans Canada, RCMP, and the government of Nova Scotia to assist in the protection of Mi'kmaw fishers, families, and supporters.

"DFO should have been, like, really working hard to educate the non-Indigenous people about the fishery and about the rights," Bernard said.

"They have to be out there right now protecting this livelihood fishery. They need to come to the table and negotiate with us. They need to help us to move forward into the future and keep the peace."

Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan has said she wants to have a sit-down meeting with commercial harvester representatives and Indigenous leaders to find the best path forward.

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Nicola currently produces Island Morning on CBC Radio. She is a graduate of St. Thomas University's journalism program and grew up on P.E.I., where she is happy to now be a multi-platform reporter and producer. Got a story? Email

With files from Nic Meloney and Haley Ryan