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Mi'kmaq fishermen prepare their gear before leaving harbour in Saulnierville, N.S., on Oct. 20, 2020.


Susan Beaton is a commercial lobster boat captain of 21 years in Nova Scotia and a former journalist.

What a strange province I live in. The top commodity export in Nova Scotia is lobster, part of an industry that has employed tens of thousands of Maritimers, fuelled more than 9,000 small businesses and driven $2.2-billion to the East Coast economy, as of 2016. And yet no one outside the industry seems to know a thing about how it works.

What a peculiar view Canadians seem to have of us now amid the conflict with Mi’kmaq fishermen over lobster fisheries in Nova Scotia – conflict that has, unfortunately and condemnably, led to violence against them. Fishermen are not megacorporation pipeline builders or uber-rich land expropriators for golf-club projects; we’re not greedy capitalists who don’t care about the environment – in fact, most of the lobster industry’s conservation rules came directly from us. And despite the awful violence, on an individual level, we’re no more likely to be racist than in any other vocation – including your own, whatever it is.

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And how odd, the way Indigenous peoples have been portrayed. They’re not charged alone with protecting the Earth from marauding corporate interests; they’re everyday people, trying to make a living so their children have a chance to do even better. A chance, equal to ours, and they certainly deserve that. Indeed, settlers' presence on this land has unfolded, one atrocity after another, for hundreds of years. That has to stop.

But no one seems to be asking why a “moderate livelihood” fishery can’t take place within the season and under the same rules, nor why such fisheries are focused on the lobster fishery alone, even though neither the Marshall Decisions nor the Peace and Friendship Treaty mentioned lobster – only “traditional fisheries.” And although lobster, snow crab, swordfish and others were not traditionally fished by the Mi’kmaq, no one in the commercial sector objected when their rights were extended to include more species. We fishers know that a moderate livelihood will likely mean fishing more than one species, and so the Sipekne’katik First Nation currently holds 15 commercial lobster licences that are continually fished in season, as well as licences for snow crab, swordfish, mackerel, scallop, sea urchin and more.

Working together has been beneficial for everyone. For more than a decade, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans ran a mentorship program bringing together Indigenous and non-Indigenous fishermen. There have been partnership agreements between commercial harvesters and Indigenous communities to catch their fish for them, for a fee, with the bulk of the profits returning to the band. In 1999, Maritime First Nations held 316 commercial fishing licences; by 2009, that number had grown to 1,238, according to the DFO. And between that time, “Indigenous employment in the fishery spiked upwards, as did general economic returns to First Nations communities … the number of seasonal jobs rose, Indigenous engagement in training improved, and First Nations ownership of fisheries-related businesses grew dramatically,” according to the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.

Together we fought against an extension for Northern Pulp to use its Boat Harbour wastewater treatment facility in Pictou County, N.S. Together we prompted a court to overturn the Alton Gas storage facility project and halted the proposed Donkin Mine from doing seismic testing that threatened to contaminate the waters.

The identity politics at play, dividing and supporting one side or the other, misses the point. There is no intrinsic good and intrinsic evil here – just humans, living in the messy middle of life, in a single collective industry that needs everyone to work together. We both need to control when lobsters are caught or risk crashing the market price or the stocks. We both need boat-builders, welders, mechanics, truckers, plant workers, trap builders and supply businesses. We both need markets, so retailers and restaurants taking lobster off menus makes no sense when everyone relies on the whole of the market for their livelihoods.

Yes, First Nations need more access to the fisheries to bring themselves closer to the goal of a moderate livelihood, and as settlers, we must own our part in a history of systemic oppression and abuse. But access to the lobster fishery needs to take place inside federal conservation guidelines, governed by a body for whom lobsters are the first concern.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my 20 years on the water fishing lobster, herring and mackerel, it’s this: No one can afford to be on the water alone. Everyone gets in trouble at least once in their fishing life and needs someone to help. So we all know – or learn pretty quickly – that once we are on the ocean, we need each other to stay afloat.

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