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Allister Surette has helped resolve fights over disputed fishing grounds in Atlantic Canada before. But he’s never been thrown into a lobster war quite as challenging and complex as the one consuming the fishery in southwestern Nova Scotia.

Mr. Surette, the new federal special representative assigned to ease tensions between commercial and Mi’kmaq fishermen over an Indigenous fishery operating outside the federally regulated season, acknowledges that he’s stepping into a very emotional and volatile situation.

“The tensions here are still very high, and we’ve all seen what’s happened in recent weeks. That’s very different from any other conflict I’ve been involved in,” said Mr. Surette, who has helped mediate disputes in the herring fishery between Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick, as well as a fight over a lobster ground near the Îles-de-la-Madeleine. “I know there’s not a quick fix to this.”

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Canada’s courts and governments have themselves to blame for the lobster-fishery dispute

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

Last month, Mi’kmaq fishermen in southwestern Nova Scotia began exercising a constitutional right to catch lobsters out of season. That has been met with sometimes-violent disputes with non-Indigenous commercial lobster fishermen, who argue everyone should have to fish by the same rules. Vehicles, boats and a fish plant have been burned, fishing lines have been cut and Indigenous traps have been removed from the water and vandalized.

The intimidation has gone both ways – including Facebook messages threatening to put commercial fishermen in a “mass grave,” which pushed the local head of the Maritime Fishermen’s Union to quit over fears for his family’s safety.

Despite a heavy RCMP presence, the mischief continues. This week, someone dumped roofing nails on rural roads leading to three wharfs near Barrington Passage, N.S. On Friday, the Mounties released images of two men walking away from a fish plant in Middle West Pubnico on Oct. 16, the night it burned to the ground in a suspicious fire.

Mr. Surette is tackling a file that is also evolving quickly. Multiple East Coast First Nations are planning to launch their own “moderate livelihood” fisheries, following the lead of the Sipekne’katik First Nation. There remain long-running concerns from commercial fishermen about what they see as a growing and largely unregulated Indigenous fishery.

Mr. Surette, a former provincial Liberal cabinet minister, will report back to Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan and Carolyn Bennett, Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations, in December on how to defuse the situation. That could include advice on potential changes to regulation that might help ease tensions.

“I’m no miracle worker,” said Mr. Surette, who is now president and vice-chancellor of Université Sainte-Anne in Nova Scotia. “In some situations, you can’t get answers very quickly. But you at least try to identify a process to move forward.”

He’s also wading in at a time of increasing divisions among Nova Scotia’s Mi’kmaq First Nations over the lobster issue. On Wednesday, the co-chair of the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaw Chiefs stepped down because of those rifts, saying he was frustrated by the group’s failure to define a moderate livelihood fishery with the federal government.

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Membertou Chief Terry Paul, who had been the elder statesman of the assembly, said the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) was practising a divide-and-conquer strategy, dealing with individual band councils instead of the organization representing Mi’kmaq people.

His community is planning to launch its own moderate livelihood fishery, along with several other Mi’kmaq First Nations in the province. The chief of Bear River First Nation, a small band with reserve land close to St. Mary’s Bay, said her community also plans to launch its own fishery, but members complain they’ve been pushed aside by Sipekne’katik’s moderate livelihood fishery.

“Over the last few weeks, our fishers have been forced out of this area due to the ongoing dispute,” Bear River Chief Carol Dee Potter wrote in a letter to the federal Fisheries Minister and Indigenous leaders. “It is hard to see how any way forward can be developed … when so many are intent on escalating the situation on St. Marys Bay.”

Commercial fishermen have complained that Sipekne’katik is almost 280 kilometres east of the wharf in Saulnierville, N.S., being used to launched its fishery. They express fears that without clarity from the federal government, Indigenous fishermen from around the region will be free to converge wherever they like, with no limits on how many of them can fish year-round in one area. They argue moderate livelihood fisheries should be limited to Indigenous people who live in the immediate area.

The Potlotek First Nation in Cape Breton, meanwhile, also launched its own moderate livelihood fishery last month, a move that was largely without conflict until the Department of Fisheries and Oceans confiscated more than 150 of its traps two weeks ago.

Mr. Surette, who said he has not yet spoken to Sipekne’katik Chief Mike Sack, made it clear his job is not to negotiate the rules for any First Nation’s moderate livelihood fishery – those talks are happening on a nation-to-nation basis and are separate from his work. Chief Sack said he was feeling “very positive” about those discussions so far.

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But Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil, speaking at a news conference Thursday, suggested that the federal strategy of dealing with Mi’kmaq communities individually was only fuelling further divisions.

“I think it highlights that if you try to solve a nation issue by … negotiating with one community, you cause that fraction,” he said.

While many First Nations are planning their own moderate livelihood fishery, only three have signed deals with Ottawa to develop their own commercial fishery with the support of the federal government. Those bands, the Elsipogtog and Esgenoôpetitj First Nations in New Brunswick and the Maliseet of Viger First Nation in Quebec, entered into Rights Reconciliation Agreements that have financed the purchase of fishing licences, vessels and gear, and established a framework for co-management of the fishery.

It has helped bring some prosperity to those communities. Esgenoôpetitj, for example, now owns a seafood-processing plant in Caraquet, N.B., that employs 40 to 60 people – 60 per cent of whom are Indigenous.

But the Sipekne’katik say those deals require First Nations to waive too many of their treaty rights, giving up regulatory power in exchange for financial support from Ottawa, concessions it isn’t prepared to agree to.

Under the band’s new moderate livelihood fishery, each Sipekne’katik lobster licence holder runs its operations independently but will eventually pay a licence fee to the First Nation – money that isn’t being collected yet while the fishery is in its early stages.

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