As It Happens·Q&A

Sipekne'katik chief says he won't play by Ottawa's rules for Mi'kmaw fishery

Sipekne'katik Chief Mike Sack has no intention of falling in line with the federal government’s edict on Indigenous fisheries.

Feds say all fisheries must operate within the commercial season. Mike Sack says that's 'not going to happen'

Sipekne'katik Chief Mike Sack says his First Nation will continue to operate its fishery outside DFO seasons in 2021. (Nic Meloney/CBC)

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Sipekne'katik Chief Mike Sack has no intention of falling in line with the federal government's edict on Indigenous fisheries.

Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan said in a statement on Wednesday that Ottawa will not issue licenses to fisheries that operate outside the federal commercial season.

Last fall, the Sipekne'katik First Nation in Nova Scotia launched its own self-regulated, rights-based lobster fishery outside the federal fishing season, sparking a violent backlash from commercial fishers

The Mi'kmaw fishers cited their right to fish for a "moderate livelihood," which was entrenched by the Supreme Court of Canada's 1999 Marshall decision.

However, a few months after the Marshall ruling, the court issued a followup statement known as Marshall II, saying that moderate livelihood fisheries still fall under federal regulations for conservation.

Sack says the federal government has no right to impose its rules and regulations on the Mi'kmaw, and that Sipekne'katik's fishery will be back this year — bigger and better than ever.

Here is part of his conversation with As It Happens host Carol Off. 

Chief Sack, what was your first reaction when you heard about this announcement from Ottawa that your people will have to fish during the commercial season?

I guess it was no surprise. It wasn't good to hear, but it doesn't change anything for us. That was Minister Jordan's opinion, and doesn't go very far with us.

So what will you do? Will you go along with that decision?

No, not at all. We're going to continue to fish our own season, a treaty-rights based fishing season, and we'll determine what our season is going to be and how we're going to fish and everything around that.

Based on what? What are your arguments as to why you should continue to fish as you want to fish?

We have a treaty right, and that's what we're going off of. You know, they're trying to loop everything into the Marshall II decision that gives them a say in what we do, and they completely don't have any say in it.

We have a community that's in a very rough shape, a lot of poverty. And that's what we're looking to accomplish, to bring up the standards of life for our people.

A Sipekne'katik fisherman works for the First Nation's Mi'kmaw-regulated fishery. (Nic Meloney/CBC)

Does this [statement from Ottawa] allow you to have a moderate livelihood within the commercial season?

No, the commercial season will not work for our people. Just based off of the weather and the boat sizes they need and the equipment they need to do it, it just won't work. 

Those commercial industries that, you know, have like a million-dollar boat, and our people are out on a $20,000 boat. 

So you can't fish at the same time. We're not fishing the same amount of traps. It's a very small-scale fishery compared to the commercial one.

But if you fish during that season, why can't you get the lobster you're seeking? Why can't you get your quota through [the commercial] system?

You can't go on the water with that size of a boat. The weather's just too rough. You can't fish it. It's not possible.

What Ottawa is trying to present is some kind of a compromise that will bring, I guess, peace to that fishing season, the fishing community, and allow both to work together. We know from having talked to the commercial fishermen that they don't have a problem with the Mi'kmaw treaty rights as long as they're within the commercial fishing season. So does that look like this is the compromise?

I think just what you said there's no compromise at all. They don't have a problem as long as it's whatever they want. And it's very obvious that the commercial industry is using Minister Jordan as a puppet and they're going along with it, with colonization.

The Supreme Court decision that we're talking about back in 1999 … said that the Mi'kmaw treaty rights allowed Mi'kmaq to have a moderate livelihood, but under federal government regulations for conservation. And that's what the minister is referring to, that the Supreme Court made it clear that the treaty rights are subject to regulation by Ottawa. Isn't that what they're doing here?

Donald Marshall Jr. was fined for fishing out of season without a licence, and those charges were all dropped. He was found not guilty. 

So Canada realized they lost, came back, and tried to impose rules on us, which they're trying to enforce now. They have no right to do so, so they should not be doing it.

The Supreme Court said that these rights, these treaty rights, would be subject to regulations that were justified on conservation or grounds of public importance …. That's what the Supreme Court said at that time, did it not?

To me, I don't I honestly don't care what the Supreme Court of Canada said. We have a treaty right to do so, and that's what we're going on.

A commercial fisherman holds sign that reads: 'We have fishing seasons for a reason.' (Paul Withers/CBC)

What, then, will happen? How will you pursue this?

We're going to have a fishery that's going to start this spring. It's going to be bigger and better than ever. And the commercial guys will have to get used to it and start liking it.

The licenses you have, you will issue from within your own band, is that right?

Within our own band. And this year will have more licenses being issued, and possibly more traps per boat.

You know what happened in the violence that ensued and the conflict, and a lot of your own people being threatened. Are you not concerned that that is what's in the future if you don't work with this compromise, I guess, that Ottawa is offering you?

So you're saying that we should do what they say, or they're going to have mobs of people take us out? Like, shouldn't all Canadians be aware or afraid of that?

Our people have been dealing with this stuff forever, so a few more threats aren't going to do anything. I mean, a month and a half ago, I was threatened. The RCMP didn't do anything about it. So we'll see how the spring goes.

And we've talked about that before, the threats you've received. And so is there any way, is there any place you can see, where there is a compromise that you would accept?

Yeah, we offered to have DFO a part of our science [from Sipekne'kati's internal conservation management plan]. Their main concern was conservation, so we offered that to them. They didn't take us up on that. So that's the only compromise we have.

Why would we listen to what Minister Jordan, who's politically influenced because elections are coming up, to impose rights on us? It's not going to happen.

And so the plan is that you will proceed and defy what the DFO, what Ottawa, is proposing?

One hundred per cent.

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Chris Harbord. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.


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