Skip to main content

Members of the Potlotek First Nation head out into St. Peters Bay from the wharf in St. Peter’s, N.S. as they participate in a self-regulated commercial lobster fishery on Oct. 1, 2020, which is Treaty Day.Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

A second Mi’kmaq First Nation has launched its own off-season lobster fishery in Nova Scotia, but unlike a recent fishing dispute in the province, this one came with the support of local commercial fishermen.

The Potlotek First Nation, a community of about 600 residents in Cape Breton, issued its own fishing tags as part of a “moderate livelihood” fishery plan developed with the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaw Chiefs rather than negotiating a deal with Ottawa that would oblige them to abide by federal regulations.

But instead of causing a tense confrontation with commercial fishermen, which was the case when the Sipekne’katik First Nation launched its fleet in Saulnierville, N.S., last month, this was a peaceful event. Nearly 300 people attended the ceremony to launch the boats loaded with lobster traps out onto the water, more than three months after the fishing season closed.

The disputed Mi’kmaw lobster fishery has the law on its side

Members of the Potlotek First Nation met with the local fishers ahead of time in an attempt to avoid confrontations.

“They are just exercising their right,” Gilbert Boucher, departing president of the association that represents fishermen in southern Cape Breton, told a local newspaper. “We live alongside one another. They are good people.”

The launch of the province’s newest Indigenous-run fishery coincides with annual Treaty Day celebrations in Nova Scotia, which mark the signing of peace-and-friendship treaties between the Mi’kmaq and the Crown in the 1700s.

The launch comes as three Mi’kmaq parliamentarians are urging Ottawa to create and co-manage an Indigenous fishery off Nova Scotia as a long-term solution to conflicts between First Nations and non-Indigenous fishers in the lobster harvest. Under such a system, local bands and the federal government would share regulatory responsibility.

Senator Dan Christmas, a former chief of the Membertou First Nation in Cape Breton, Senator Brian Francis of Abegweit First Nation in Prince Edward Island, and Jaime Battiste, a Liberal MP from Nova Scotia who was at Thursday’s launch, met with Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan and Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett last week to push their proposal.

The Mi’kmaq lobster fisheries are tied to the 1999 Supreme Court ruling that Donald Marshall Jr., a Cape Breton Indigenous fisherman, had a treaty right to fish for eels when and where he wanted, without a licence.

The Marshall decision said the Mi’kmaq, Maliseet and Passamaquoddy bands of Eastern Canada could hunt, fish and gather to earn a “moderate livelihood,” although the court clarified two months later that the treaty right was subject to federal regulation for conservation purposes.

A study published last fall by the Macdonald-Laurier Institute suggested Indigenous communities have benefited significantly since the Marshall decision, with First Nations accounting for 6 per cent of the total market for all fisheries in the Atlantic region in 2016 – about $122-million in revenue, up from $3-million in 1999.

In 2018, First Nations in the Atlantic region operated 320 vessels, employing 1,461 harvesters and 234 captains.

Indigenous leaders say they’re largely dissatisfied with the federal Fisheries Department method of seeking individual deals with bands. They want a deal with Ottawa to regulate their own Indigenous fishery.

“The current path isn’t working after 21 years of waiting for action and the last three years of negotiations,” Mr. Christmas said.

As a model, the Mi’kmaq leaders point to the successful implementation of a co-managed education system in the province adopted by 12 of the 13 Mi’kmaq First Nations.

“We’ve governed our own education system for 25 years, and we think developing a similar model for the fishery would have equal success,” he said.

With a report from The Canadian Press

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.