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Minister touts deals with N.S. Indigenous communities as sign Ottawa's plan working

HALIFAX — Departing Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan says new fishing agreements with Mi'kmaq communities indicate her approach to the Indigenous lobster harvest is working, despite continuing tensions on the water.

HALIFAX — Departing Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan says new fishing agreements with Mi'kmaq communities indicate her approach to the Indigenous lobster harvest is working, despite continuing tensions on the water.

The Nova Scotia minister — who remains in her post until a new cabinet is named — was defeated in the Sept. 20 election, with some political scientists saying the fishing disputes in St. Marys Bay cost her votes among Indigenous communities and commercial fishers.

But in an interview with The Canadian Press, Jordan said negotiations are gradually bearing fruit with First Nations fisheries.

"I think the approach we've taken, as demonstrated today, is working," she said. "We have First Nations out on the water today fishing a moderate livelihood .... We have understandings in place. These are very positive signs of communities that want to work with the government of Canada."

On Wednesday, the federal Fisheries Department announced it had negotiated lobster fishing arrangements with Bear River and Annapolis Valley First Nations, which authorize their fishers to set 70 traps per harvester off southern Nova Scotia and to legally sell their catch. The Acadia and Glooscap First Nations also participated in the discussions and may request to take part in fishing this season under the same agreement.

Ottawa says a total of 3,500 traps can be set under the agreement, with the communities to decide how they are allocated.

In early June, the Potlotek First Nation in Cape Breton reached a similar "interim understanding" — a term used to indicate the bands haven't given up their inherent rights — authorizing a total of 700 lobster traps for the community's fishers to conduct a moderate livelihood fishery.

The agreements are linked to a 1999 Supreme Court of Canada decision that affirmed the treaty right of Indigenous harvesters to fish for a moderate livelihood, though the court later clarified that Ottawa could regulate the fishery for conservation and other limited purposes.

Tensions remain, however, between Ottawa and Sipekne'katik First Nation, the second-largest band in the province, whose fishers say government officers have been seizing traps set under their self-regulated fishery off southwest Nova Scotia.

Jordan said similar understandings to the ones she's signed are also available to Chief Mike Sack of Sipekne'katik. "We're working with communities who want to work with us, and Chief Sack is not currently at the negotiating table," she said. "He's welcome back at any time."

Sack was unavailable for immediate comment Thursday, as a spokeswoman said he was focused on a search for a missing fisher from his community off the coast of Nova Scotia.

Megan Bailey, a Dalhousie University researcher who has worked with Sipekne'katik on a lobster conservation study, said the federal approach still has major flaws. She said the tendency to characterize Sack as the reason for the lack of progress, "is representative of all that is wrong with the current government’s approach to reconciliation: that they know best."

She said in an email Thursday the current dispute "stems from decades of command and control policies by DFO (Department of Fisheries and Oceans) to regulate rights in ways counter to ideals of self-government and self-determination: ideals that Canada and this current government specifically have committed to."

Bailey, a professor in the university's marine affairs program, says each band likely has different costs and benefits they weigh in making decisions on fishing accords. "DFO may want to adopt some flexibility and listen," she said. "Listen to what Indigenous leaders are saying they need or want."

However, Jordan said the existing approach is one that is gradually taking hold.

"These are not issues that are solved overnight. The Supreme Court decision came 22 years ago, and it's taken time to get to this point, but it's been our government that's actually gotten agreements and understandings in place with the First Nations," she said.

Asked what role the fisheries dispute played in her defeat, Jordan didn't offer a direct answer, but said the portfolio is "a difficult file." She said she hasn't decided her next steps, saying she is "taking time some time to catch her breath and relax a bit after a hard six years." 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 14, 2021.

Michael Tutton, The Canadian Press

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