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Indigenous fishermen adjust lines on their boat in Saulnierville, N.S. on Oct. 21, 2020.

Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

The First Nations chief behind a small but contentious fishing fleet trapping Nova Scotia lobster outside the regulated season raised concerns on Sunday about Ottawa’s latest bid to quell violent protests by non-Indigenous agitators.

Chief Mike Sack of the Sipekne’katik First Nation said he has his doubts about Ottawa’s decision Friday to appoint a “special representative” to mediate talks between Indigenous and non-Indigenous fishers in southwestern Nova Scotia.

Sack said he’s worried that Allister Surette, a university president and former politician from the area, lacks experience with Indigenous issues and may not have the capacity to be a neutral, third-party troubleshooter.

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“I was surprised to learn of who he was,” Sack told The Canadian Press. “Just the dynamics of it doesn’t really sit right with me.”

The federal government issued a statement Friday saying Surette is “deeply aware of the historical and current nature of the relationships among the residents of Nova Scotia, including First Nations and commercial fish harvesters.”

Still, Sack said he doesn’t consider Surette’s new role important to what his First Nation is trying to accomplish through ongoing nation-to-nation talks with the federal government.

“In our priority list, it’s not near the top at all,” he said. “Our main priority is our management plan and getting that upheld by the government. That is where our focus is at.”

The chief said he expressed his concerns to Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett on Saturday. He said Bennett confirmed that the talks led by Surette will have no impact on negotiations between the band and Ottawa regarding the band’s proposal to continue with a self-regulated lobster enterprise.

“The talks are great,” said Sack. “I’m very optimistic.”

Most of the Mi’kmaq First Nations in Nova Scotia argue they have a constitutionally protected right to earn a moderate livelihood from fishing, hunting and gathering where and when they want. The Supreme Court of Canada affirmed that treaty right in a landmark 1999 ruling that cited peace treaties signed by the Crown in the 1760s.

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The federal government has confirmed it is committed to implementing the Mi’kmaq treaty right to pursue a moderate livelihood.

Many non-Indigenous people involved in the province’s $1-billion lobster industry, however, have argued the court’s decision also affirmed Ottawa’s right to regulate the industry to ensure conservation of the lobster stocks. And they have raised concerns that a growing “moderate livelihood” fishery could deplete the resource.

In the past month, there have been protests at various wharfs, and some non-Indigenous fishers have been accused of cutting or removing traps set by the Indigenous fleet, which includes 11 boats on St. Marys Bay.

On Oct. 17, one of two lobster pounds that was vandalized earlier in the week was burned to the ground in Middle West Pubnico, N.S.

The RCMP have charged one man with assaulting Sack, and another suspect has been charged with arson following a van fire outside one of the lobster pounds.

On Oct. 21, the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia granted the band a temporary injunction to prevent further interference with their new fishing enterprise.

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Sack confirmed there were no reports of vandalism or violence this past weekend, though he is looking into reports that traps are still being cut.

As for Surette, he was born and raised in the Acadian village of West Pubnico and now serves as president of Universite Sainte-Anne – Nova Scotia’s only French-language university.

Elected to the Nova Scotia Legislature in 1993, representing the largely Acadian riding of Argyle, he later served as the minister responsible for Acadian affairs.

In 2003, he helped settle a dispute between herring fishers from Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick. Three years later, he was appointed to resolve a dispute between lobster fishers from Prince Edward Island and Iles-de-la-Madeleine in Quebec.

Surette’s main task this time around is to rebuild trust between commercial and Indigenous fishers, the statement said. He will also make recommendations aimed at decreasing tensions and preventing further escalation of the conflict along Nova Scotia’s Acadian shore. He has not been given a deadline.

Meanwhile, the chief said he had yet to find a buyer for the lobster that his band members have pulled from the water since the moderate livelihood fishery started on Sept. 17 – exactly 21 years after the Supreme Court ruling was handed down.

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“There’s pressure that the (lobster) industry is putting on anyone who will do business with us,” he said, adding that his fishing crews can’t even buy rope or bait from local suppliers. “They’ve been told they will be blacklisted and boycotted. We’re really handcuffed down there.”

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