During an emergency debate in the House of Commons, opposition parties have accused the Liberal government of inaction in the ongoing dispute between Indigenous and commercial lobster fishers in Nova Scotia.
The dispute saw further turmoil this past weekend when a fire destroyed a lobster pound used by Mi’kmaq fishers in the area.
“The Indigenous community and the non-Indigenous community agree on one thing: the inaction of this government is unacceptable,” Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole said during the Monday night debate. “Everyone involved in this issue deserves the respect and attention of their government and it is the Liberals’ inaction on this that has led to escalating tension and violence.”
O’Toole said he brought concerns about the rising tensions between fisheries in western Nova Scotia directly to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last month after hearing from local lobster fisheries — Indigenous and non-Indigenous — as well as from Chris D’Entremont, the local MP for the region.
“Unfortunately, tensions in Nova Scotia show the dangers of a government that is scared of making decisions, a government that simply hopes that problems will simply evaporate,” he said in French.
In response, Trudeau defended his government by indicating that it approved additional resources to increase the police presence in the region over the weekend and pledged to work with both the Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities to come up with a resolution.
“We need to have an approach that doesn’t just recognize inherent treaty rights, but implements their spirit and intent,” Trudeau said. “That’s why we will work with commercial fishers and the Canadians to ensure that this is done fairly. I understand that this is challenging, but this isn’t an inconvenience, but an obligation. If we are truly to be the country that we like to think of ourselves as, this is the road we must walk.”
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, meanwhile, questioned if the same inaction would be allowed to continue if it had been against a non-Indigenous community and called for immediate action in the matter.
“We want answers today. We want commitments today,” he said. “This is an emergency because … there is a real threat that this violence will escalate and people will lose their lives and that cannot happen and so we need immediate action right now.”
Among the issues under dispute is the Indigenous people’s right to make a “moderate livelihood” and to fish outside the federally-determined fishing season, rights established in treaties hundreds of years ago and upheld by the Supreme Court in 1999. Some non-Indigenous critics have pointed to a clarification issued by the court that said the rights were to be subject to federal regulations as proof the rights may be reinterpreted.
Singh pointed to the fact that both Conservative and Liberal governments have had a chance to define what a moderate livelihood means since the 1999 decision.
“The reason why we have this emergency debate is to make this government, this Liberal government, do something about it,” he said.
“There has been a court decision for over two decades, and yet neither has a Conservative government or the Liberal government done anything to ensure that the decision that was made is now implemented in law.”
MINISTERS CONDEMN VIOLENCE AGAINST FIRST NATIONS FISHERS
During the debate, Trudeau was clear to condemn any and all violent acts against the Indigenous fishers of Nova Scotia.
“There is no place for racism in our country,” he said. “The appalling violence in Nova Scotia must stop now. It’s unacceptable. It is shameful and it is criminal.”
Bernadette Jordan, minister of Fisheries, Oceans, and the Canadian Coast Guard, as well as a Nova Scotian, called the acts over the weekend “disgusting.”
“I know that Canadians across the country feel this way, too, and that the current situation in Nova Scotia cannot continue,” she said. “There’s no place for the threats, for the intimidation, or for the vandalism that we witnessed.”
Earlier on Monday, four federal ministers – including Jordan — condemned the acts of violence and called for a peaceful end to the dispute.
“The reckless violence and the racist threats that we have seen do nothing to bring us closer to a resolution. They only serve to divide us,” said Public Safety Minister Bill Blair during a Monday news conference, adding that RCMP are reviewing a variety of video evidence of violence and that people will be held accountable.
“The violence must come to an end now. It is the only way to give us all an opportunity to find a peaceful, lasting solution.”
FIRST NATIONS TO DEFINE ‘MODERATE LIVLIEHOOD’ THEMSELVES
On Sunday, Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil said the federal government must define “moderate livelihood” as it relates to an Indigenous fishery, but ministers on Monday were hesitant to agree.
“I don’t believe it’s up to the federal government to define what a moderate livelihood is,” Fisheries and Oceans Minister Bernadette Jordan told CTV’s Power Play. “That’s something that is determined at the negotiation table in collaboration with First Nations communities. The last thing First Nations communities want is for the federal government to tell them what a moderate livelihood is.”
Meanwhile, Sipekne’katik Chief Mike Sack said if the federal government won’t negotiate with the Mi’kmaq to help define moderate livelihood, they will simply do it themselves.
“The treaty’s between both of us,” he said. “They haven’t been upholding it like they should, so if they’re not capable of doing that, we’ll get it defined ourselves.”
CTV News commentator and former Grand Chief for Northern Manitoba Sheila North agreed that the definition is up to the Indigenous people, not the government. North linked what she called repeated rights denials across the country to systemic economic and health issues experienced by Indigenous people, including vulnerability to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Hunting and livelihoods are at the heart of it. Indigenous people have been denied these rights for many generations. That’s why a lot of people are sick, that’s why we keep calling Indigenous people and communities the most vulnerable during this pandemic time, because they haven’t been given the right and access to live out what they have a treaty right to, living off the land and supporting their families through these practices that have been there for many, many generations,” she said.
“This is, in a bigger context, more than just lobster and access to it.”
McNEIL PROPOSES THREE-PERSON PANEL, RECEIVES PUSHBACK
McNeil said in a statement on Monday that he had a “constructive conversation” with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Sunday evening and the two agreed on the “need for all parties to engage in respectful dialogue aimed at upholding the Marshall Decision and the Mi’kmaq treaty right to fish while respecting commercial fishers and ensuring the conservation and sustainability of the fishery.”
“During our discussion, I raised the idea of a facilitated process. I suggested to him that a three-person panel be struck, with one member chosen by First Nations, one by the commercial fishermen, and the third would be agreed to by all, including the Department of Fisheries and Oceans,” McNeil said in the statement.
McNeil’s suggestion has received pushback from both the local First Nation and the federal government, however.
“The commercial fishermen don’t have any input on our right to self-govern ourselves, nor do they have a right to define our moderate livelihood,” Sack said. “They have no place at the table for our treaty rights.”
“In my mind, Minister Jordan represents them. She does a good job at that and their nation is Canada, our nation is Mi’kmaq, so we’ll deal with it that way.”
Jordan also pushed back against the idea of a three-person panel to find a resolution.
“The negotiations happen nation to nation. That is between the federal government and Sipekne’katik,” she said. “That is the absolute way we see this moving forward.”
Jordan did say however that she would make sure the concerns among commercial fisheries would be heard.
ADDITIONAL OFFICERS DEPLOYED
To ensure that peace, more RCMP officers were deployed to Nova Scotia from neighbouring Atlantic provinces over the weekend, a move that pleased Sack, who told reporters on Monday that in addition to violence, Mi’kmaq fishers, who operate more than 500 traps under 11 different licences, have also experienced interference with the fishing itself.
Some fishermen and women were unable to sell lobsters, others were blocked from obtaining traps or fuel. In addition to the new RCMP deployment on the ground, Sack said that he hopes there is increased enforcement at sea.
“We need some safety on the water and protection on the water,” he said. “I think more charges need to be laid to ensure no actions are being taken against anyone.”
Sack said he’s received violent and racist threats “on a daily basis.”
“It’s unfortunate,” he said. “It’s 2020, we all live together… people need to accept people and it’s just sad.”
Still, he’s optimistic the dispute will be resolved, adding that Indigenous representatives are in talks with Jordan on how to move forward.
“It’s been an emotional roller coaster for our people. There’s fear, sadness, frustration,” he said. “But our people are very resilient. Quitting is not in our blood.”
Concern from commercial fishermen about the lobster supply was addressed Monday when Jordan said that the stock is healthy and that environmental concerns are the “key priority” for Fisheries and Oceans Canada.
“[We] will continue to monitor stocks and will never move forward with a plan that threatens the health of this species,” she said. “We want to make sure that we can serve this species for generations to come. It has to be sustainable but it has to be peaceful.”