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Nova Scotia’s Lobster War

By: Emily Thom

Tensions between the Sipekne’katik First Nation and non-Indigenous fishermen in Nova Scotia erupted into violence with the alleged arson of a fishing pound last Friday, October 16. Indigenous fishermen in Saulnierville, Nova Scotia have recently been the target of threats, vandalism, and angry mobs by commercial fishermen since the opening of their own lobster fishery in St. Mary’s Bay in September. Located approximately 250 kilometers from Halifax, the Mi’kmaq run fishery is a cause of contention among non-Indigenous fishermen who claim that the Sipekne’katik First Nation’s fishing is an illegal threat to the province’s marine ecosystem, and thus hinders their livelihoods.

The Sipekne’katik First Nation launched their fleet outside of the federally regulated fishing season (November 30 to May 31). They believe that their fishing is protected under the Peace and Friendship Treaties​ dating back to 1725 and 1779. These agreements between the British Crown and the Mi’kmaq guaranteed hunting, fishing, and land-use rights to the descendants of the Indigenous signatories. The treaties affirmed their right to fish, hunt, and gather in pursuit of a “moderate livelihood”, a vague term that remains largely undefined to this day. In 1999, the Supreme Court of Canada upheld the treaties in the ​landmark Marshall Decision​ (R. v. Marshall), allowing Mi’kmaq fishermen to harvest lobster outside of the commercial season. A rare clarification was issued in November of 1999, known as ​Marshall 2​, following fierce backlash from non-Indigenous fishers. Marshall 2 subjects Mi’kmaq fishers to federal regulation in cases where the government can justify conservation concerns.

Today, the debate continues surrounding the notion of a “moderate livelihood”. Some claim that a “moderate livelihood” is limited to fishing for subsistence, while others argue that it encompasses a successful business. Michel Sack, Sipekne’katik chief, told the CBC that ​“the average Nova Scotia income should at least be the starting point”​ in defining livelihood. The clarification of “moderate livelihood” is a work-in-progress on the part of the federal government. Since 2019, the Trudeau government has reached moderate livelihood agreements with three bands in New Brunswick and Quebec. However, a right and reconciliation agreement has yet to be ratified with the Mi’kmaq in Nova Scotia.

The non-Indigenous commercial fishers in the area accuse the Sipekne’katik First Nation of using their fishery to disguise a large-scale commercial operation. The non-Indigenous fishers called on the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) to enforce the regulations concerning the fishing season. They say that the off-season allows the lobsters to moult and reproduce without disruption. The Sipekne’katik First Nation maintains that they are equally concerned about conservation, enforcing strict guidelines internally and fishing only 5% of the lobsters in the region. Professor Megan Bailey from Dalhousie University’s Marine Affairs department told The Canadian Press that the First Nation’s fishery does not currently pose an environmental threat: ​“The scale of livelihood fishery as it exists right now with 350 traps is not a conservation concern”​.

All parties have condemned the violence and call for de-escalation. Last Wednesday, Colin Sproul, president of the Bay of Fundy Inshore Fisherman’s Association, declared that “dialogue is the way forward​”. Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller weighed in on the violence, calling it ​“disgusting, unacceptable, and racist in nature​”. Several government leaders, including Prime Minister Trudeau, have condemned the events in Nova Scotia against Indigenous people. In addition, ​Public Safety Minister Bill Blair​ approved a request to increase police presence in the province’s southwest.

The irony of the situation lies in the violent crimes committed by non-Indigenous commercial fishermen over the Sipekne’katik First Nation’s allegedly illicit fishery. In this vicious lobster war, Nova Scotians simply cannot have the law both ways.

*All arguments made and viewpoints expressed within Youth In Politics and its nominal entities do not necessarily reflect the views of the writers or the organization as a whole.


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