Police officers investigate the remains of a lobster pound destroyed by a fire in Middle West Pubnico, N.S., Oct. 17. CNS photo/John Morris, Reuters

Francis Campbell: The search for middle ground in lobster war

  • November 6, 2020

Is there no middle ground to be found?

That certainly seems to be the case in the lobster-rich region of southwestern Nova Scotia.

When the Sipekne’katik First Nation, a Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq band located primarily in the central part of the province, asserted a treaty right to launch a self-regulated lobster fishery on Sept. 17, a bitter dispute was reignited.

Non-Indigenous commercial fishermen argued that there should be no lobster catches hauled outside the federally regulated season that begins in southwest Nova Scotia at the end of November.

On Sept. 20, non-Indigenous fishermen removed traps set by the Sipekne’katik band in St. Marys Bay.

Two days later, Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan, who represents the nearby federal riding of South Shore-St. Margarets, supported the constitutionally protected treaty right of the Mi’kmaq to fish for a moderate livelihood. That right to earn a moderate livelihood through fishing, hunting and gathering was affirmed in the 1999 Supreme Court of Canada decision that Donald Marshall Jr., a Mi’kmaq man from Cape Breton, had the right to fish for eels without a licence and sell them when and where he wanted.

Protests, vandalism, accusations of racism and an emergency parliamentary debate ensued as emotions ran high in southwestern Nova Scotia into October.

On Oct. 14, a lobster pound was ransacked and a vehicle was set on fire at a separate pound. Some 200 people were on hand at each incident.

After Prime Minister Justin Trudeau urged the RCMP to ensure the safety of the Indigenous fishermen and their fleet of 11 boats in St. Marys Bay, a lobster pound in Middle West Pubnico holding the Mi’kmaq catch was burned to the ground.

The local RCMP charged one man with assaulting Sipekne’katik Chief Mike Sack and another was charged with arson in the burning of a van at a lobster pound.

The non-Indigenous commercial fishermen who earn their livelihood from the most lucrative fishing grounds in the province’s $1-billion lobster industry argue that the Supreme Court decision also upheld the federal government’s authority to ensure conservation of a lobster stock that could be jeopardized by an expanding moderate livelihood for Indigenous fishermen.

Commercial fishermen have been painted as greedy, paranoid and racist. Right or wrong, not much room for compromise.

But a pair of opinion pieces printed or reported in local media outlets recently offer calm after the storm.

“I know that the conduct of a few of the area’s residents is not indicative of the relationship that we have with our many friends and neighbours in this district,” wrote Chief Deborah Robinson of the Acadia First Nation, which encompasses six reserves stretching from Halifax to Yarmouth.

Robinson asserted the constitutionally guaranteed rights to a moderate livelihood and charged the federal government with two decades of “systemic economic racism” for not properly recognizing and safeguarding that Marshall decision right.

The Municipality of Barrington, which lands 40 per cent of all lobsters in Canada and 20 per cent of the North American catch, took umbrage in a news release with the community being “inaccurately characterized” in the media, social media and during the House of Commons debate.

Quoted in the release, Warden Eddie Nickerson said, “it is also important to stress that the extreme actions of a few does not reflect the majority of our decent, inclusive and law-abiding residents.”

The release called on the federal government to resolve the dispute.

“They (government) have failed all fishers to this point and it is their responsibility to sustain the fisheries and ensure that they remain healthy for future generations,” the municipality’s release said. “Addressing local concerns related to resource management and conservation, clearly defining ‘moderate livelihood’ and supporting the importance of fishing within the season are all very important aspects to this discussion that must include all parties.”

While Robinson and Nickerson did not betray acquiescence, they at least sang from a common songbook of conciliation and collaboration. Black or white, right or wrong conceded a grey area.

An abiding respect for another point of view is the only path to that grey area.

“Do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others,” Paul wrote to the Philippians.

To the Romans, Paul wrote “pay to all their dues … respect to whom respect is due, honour to whom honour is due.”

Words to live by, words to fish by. 

(Campbell is a reporter at the Halifax Chronicle Herald.)

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