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Mi'kmaq fishing captain Dave McDonald prepares his boat before fishing lobster in St. Marys Bay as a part of the Sipekne'katik First Nation's moderate-livelihood fishery at the wharf in Saulnierville, N.S. on Sept. 7, 2021.Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

Dave McDonald’s little grey boat, the Shark Patrol, has hauled halibut and scallops from the Bay of Fundy’s cold waters since 1972. On land, he hunts moose and deer year-round from the forest. When the spawning gaspereau turn the river silver, he uses a fishing weir to catch them, too.

But none of those things provoke anger in Nova Scotia quite like the food the Mik’maw elder is after right now – lobster. The fight over who has the right to catch and sell the crustacean – the most lucrative of all the Atlantic fisheries – bitterly divides communities and has sparked waves of violence and vigilantism, pitting Indigenous and non-Indigenous fishermen against each other.

“As soon as we start making some money for ourselves, they want to put us down,” says Mr. McDonald, who at 64 is the oldest member of the Sipekne’katik First Nation who still fishes in St. Mary’s Bay outside Digby, N.S. “They’ve got a privilege to fish, but we’ve got a right to fish.”

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When his band launched a self-regulated commercial lobster fishery last September, angry mobs ransacked warehouses, torched a lobster pound and stole hundreds of Sipekne’katik traps. Commercial fishermen say the Indigenous fishery, operating outside federal control, is hurting lobster populations and depressing the price of the prized seafood.

In places like Barrington, N.S., and Yarmouth, N.S., where generations have earned a living from the sea, few election issues provoke as much emotion as Ottawa’s management of the fishery. Fishermen here complain that the Liberal government has allowed the Indigenous fishery to expand out of control, risking the livelihood of thousands.

Sipekne’katik, and a growing number of First Nations on the East Coast, argue their right to fish commercially stems from treaties signed in the 18th century and upheld two decades ago by the Supreme Court in the Marshall Decision. They reject the notion that Ottawa can regulate them, force them to fish within certain seasons, or impose licences or any other restrictions on their catch.

And that has non-Indigenous fishermen worried.

“Where does it end? Where’s the limit?” asks Susan Beaton, an Antigonish, N.S., fisher who learned how to fish from her father. “Even small-scale changes to the fishery can be detrimental to the species. You can’t manage a fishery this way, because the lobsters don’t care who’s catching them. A lot of people in our industry are pretty pissed this has been allowed to happen.”

In places like Yarmouth, N.S., where generations have earned a living from the sea, few election issues provoke as much emotion as Ottawa’s management of the fishery.Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

On both sides, they point an angry finger at Ottawa. In a region where there are plenty of close election races, the fisheries dispute may be enough to swing some ridings. In the 2019 federal election, the Liberals dropped from 32 to 26 seats, and some Indigenous leaders say the party can’t count on their support this time around.

In recent weeks, First Nations have complained of seizures and surveillance by Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) officers operating in the Northumberland Straight, off the southern coast of New Brunswick and in St. Mary’s Bay, where the Sipekne’katik fleet is fishing. The federal department says it has seized 586 traps, released 7,440 lobster and made 20 arrests in St. Mary’s Bay alone since May – actions that have been condemned by the Mi’kmaq.

On Thursday, Assembly of First Nations national chief RoseAnne Archibald livestreamed a confrontation there after DFO detained two Mi’kmaq vessels and confiscated lobster traps.

“What I witnessed was harassment by the DFO and intimidation,” Ms. Archibald said. “No more seizure of lobster gear … That is taking food from the mouths of our children. That has to end. Stop criminalizing treaty rights.”

While Sipekne’katik argue the lobster is for a small-scale fishery intended for community use, the DFO says it’s only enforcing the rules that prohibit commercial fishing outside of federally regulated seasons. But those enforcement measures are eroding Indigenous support for the Liberals, some say.

“Trudeau had the support of the First Nations in the last election. Not anymore. We’re voting NDP,” Mr. McDonald said. “They may not have listened to us before, but they’re going to listen to us now.”

In rural Nova Scotia ridings such as South Shore-St. Margarets, where the fishery is a major employer, federal Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan is now fighting to keep her job in a seat that has a history of voting Conservative. She’s been widely criticized by both Indigenous and non-Indigenous fishermen alike for her handling of the issue.

“When she’s going door-to-door, I’m sure this is a common question,” said Erin Crandall, a professor of political science at Acadia University in Wolfville, N.S. “As a minister, she has to wear the decisions of her government. That can be very difficult in your home riding. And I think it’s difficult for any of the Liberal incumbents in Nova Scotia.”

Steve Gee, owner of Yarmouth Boat Works Ltd., oversees construction on two commercial fishing vessels at the boat shop in Sandford, N.S. on Sept. 7, 2021.Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

It’s just past the lunch break inside the main assembly shop at Yarmouth Boat Works, and fibreglass dust is mingling in the air with the sound of classic rock blasting from a stereo.

These $1.2-million state-of-the-art vessels, with kitchens, sleeping quarters, flat-screen TVs and showers, are meant to venture far out into the ocean and carry thousands of pounds of lobster back to land. They’re a far cry from the second-hand, 11-metre boats most Mi’kmaq use.

Owner Steve Gee says while demand for new boats has slowed, finding skilled workers is hard, despite a good fibreglass technician getting $28 an hour, a decent wage in Yarmouth County.

“I need 23 workers, but three showed up today,” he said. “Our latest job posting had 300 applicants, and not one of them was in Canada.”

His biggest competition, he explains, is the fisheries itself. An inexperienced deckhand can earn up to $20,000 in a few weeks of work, Mr. Gee said. The other problem is the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) program, he said, which he feels discourages people from seeking employment.

But while the labour shortage is a pressing concern, uncertainty in the fisheries is worse. Fishermen complain they were already contending with climate change and swings in prices before the growing Indigenous fishery forced them to question their future.

Ms. Beaton paid $350,000 for her lobster licence 20 years ago, and figures with loan interest it has cost her closer to $650,000. Like a lot of fishers, selling that coveted commercial licence is her retirement plan. But she fears the dispute is hurting its value.

“I think all of us are a little worried about how big this is going to grow, and whether or not we’re going to be displaced,” she said.

“Which is frightening when you have such a big investment. You can’t expect a young guy to spend half a million dollars on a lobster licence if you have this question hanging over everything.”

None of the political parties have offered a clear solution to the impasse, beyond acknowledging the Indigenous right to fish, with the caveat that it should remain within the law. It all adds up to a volatile situation in fishing communities, where many feel they’ve been unfairly condemned as anti-Indigenous for voicing any concerns, Ms. Beaton said.

“Voters think emotionally,” she said. “I think a lot of people don’t know how they’ll vote right now.”

In Nova Scotia, that kind of volatility helped turf an incumbent Liberal provincial government last month in favour of a Progressive Conservative majority. Combine that with an electorate fatigued – thanks to elections in three of the four Atlantic provinces in the past year – and there’s an opportunity for opposition parties to make up ground in the region, Prof. Crandall said.

But when it comes to actually finding a resolution to the dispute over the growing Indigenous fishery, that’s another challenge.

“In terms of political issues in the region, it’s one of the biggest and most important,” Prof. Crandall said. “It’s a question of how do we reimagine the relationship between First Nations and the Canadian state? There’s no easy answer.”

Mi'kmaq fishing boats are seen moored at the wharf in Saulnierville, N.S. as a part of the Sipekne'katik First Nation's moderate-livelihood fishery.Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

Up and down Nova Scotia’s scenic southwestern coast, the lobster dispute is fracturing fishing communities. Some fuel suppliers, marine mechanics and rope companies refuse to supply the Mi’kmaq fleet. It’s also creating bitter rifts between – and in some cases, within – families.

Christina Ward, who has mixed Acadian and Mi’kmaq heritage, says her decision to work with the Sipekne’katik fishermen last year caused some family members to complain she’s stealing other people’s livelihoods. Her teenaged children attend a local French high school, and she’s worried they’ll be targeted because their mother works for the Indigenous fishery.

There have already been fistfights between the children of fishermen on both sides, she said.

“I’m worried about my kids going to school, because I know there’s going to be trouble,” Ms. Ward said, squinting at the RCMP truck patrolling the Saulnierville, N.S., wharf. “I had to teach them how to defend themselves.”

But the money is decent – up to $2,000 a day for a good catch, she said. The only other way she could make that kind of cash is selling drugs, said Ms. Ward, 40, who’s raising her family on a single income.

For others, like Mr. McDonald, it’s an issue of equality. Nova Scotia’s Mi’kmaq remain among the poorest in the province. Commercial fishermen, he contends, drive bigger trucks, have better boats and enjoy more comfortable lifestyles.

Mi’kmaq are tired of being excluded, and they’re finally taking their share, he said. They don’t intend to stop, regardless of what the law says, he said.

“Look at the houses they’ve got, then come onto the reserve and look around,” he said. “Just because you spent a million dollars to fish doesn’t give you a right to fish, but that’s what they think.”

Prof. Crandall argues that until the Indigenous fishery question is resolved, it will remain a complicated challenge for whichever party wins on Sept. 20.

“Regardless of whoever wins the election, the challenge for the next government remains the same,” she said. “They’re going to inherit this problem.”

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