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opinion

Donald J. Savoie is Canada Research Chair in Public Administration and Governance at the University of Moncton.

The conflict between non-Indigenous commercial fishermen and Mi’kmaq leaders and fishermen in Nova Scotia is getting uglier by the day. But boiled down to its essence, the debate is about trust in an age of precarity. Indigenous people do not trust government for good and obvious reasons; non-Indigenous fishermen do not trust government because most never have.

People have pointed their fingers at the Supreme Court of Canada for its 1999 R. v. Marshall decision, the misguided politicians on Parliament Hill, the faceless bureaucrats in Ottawa, the greedy white fishermen and processing plants and Indigenous people playing by their own rules. But playing this blame game generates no solutions.

There are only two groups that matter here – the Mi’kmaq and non-Indigenous fishermen. They hold in their hands the most promising approach to finding a lasting solution to a major challenge: defining a process so that both groups can see a future in the fishery.

For their part, non-Indigenous fishermen see the writing on the wall – and they are angry. They know full well that any agreement will have to be struck by the federal government negotiating with First Nations – after all, this is what the Supreme Court decided in 1999. More to the point, they see a negotiating table to which they are not invited. First Nations, meanwhile, are finally seeing light at the end of the tunnel after having been essentially frozen out of the fishery since Canada was born.

Both groups have a legitimate role to play in a sector that is seeing dramatic growth in economic value. The question then becomes how best to manage the resource so that it is sustainable for generations to come.

At the moment, trust is nowhere to be found because there is nothing in place to promote respect for each other’s point of view. Rather than talking, the two groups are shouting at one another, or worse. For non-Indigenous fishermen, their livelihoods and their children’s futures are at stake, and if they are not given a voice, or if they fail to see order in negotiations, they will sadly make themselves heard in potentially awful, destructive ways. And while today’s conflicts are in southwest Nova Scotia, yesterday they were in Burnt Church, N.B., and tomorrow they will be in another fishing community. For First Nations, meanwhile, the process is never-ending. Asking them to be patient would be to ask them to give more of what they have already been offering for 153 years.

To be sure, sending in security forces will bring order to a situation that cries out for it. Violence, arson and hurling racist insults serve no purpose – in fact, they can only make a bad situation worse. But while security forces can bring order, they cannot bring respect between the two sides.

What is needed, urgently, is a venue for the two sides to meet and sort out their differences. They should create a parallel process to the negotiations that will take place between the federal government and First Nations, so that both sides can gain a better understanding of the other’s position.

Calling for a parallel process to create trust is certainly the easy part; making it work will be the hard part. At the moment, there are 35 First Nations in my region looking at how best to negotiate with Ottawa. Some non-Indigenous fishermen have organizations that can speak on their behalf, but they are all dressed up with nowhere to go. It is important, too, to remember that lobster fishermen operate independently, and see little merit in collective action.

The two sides need to establish leaders to speak on their behalf – First Nations representatives who can speak to more than the interest of one community, and non-Indigenous representatives who appreciate that First Nations have a full and a legitimate claim to the sector and that managing the resource for future generations requires a united front.

But announcing a decision from the top, and then hoping that somehow it will work out, is no way to build trust. You do so, instead, by having both sides talking to one another, by having leaders that can appreciate that there are two sides to any argument, and by seeing firsthand the considerations that go into shaping a decision. Bringing both sides to the table is required to arrest the cancer of distrust that is spreading in our fishing communities – a cancer that no Canadian should assume is going to stop there.

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