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Hell or high water

A recent conference on Indigenous livelihoods highlights the struggles and progress of Indigenous fishers dealing with the federal government.



“I always feel bad that it takes a crisis to bring that all into balance,” says Ken Paul about the struggle between Indigenous fishers and the federal government. “But sometimes that’s what necessary.”

The director of Fisheries and Integrated Resources for the Atlantic Policy Congress of First Nation Chiefs was one of the Indigenous leaders who spoke Monday night at Saint Mary’s University as part of the Communities, Conservation and Livelihoods Conference.

Striking a balance between national legislation and Indigenous rights was the topic, as panellists spoke in depth about the Donald Marshall Jr. decision, the Burnt Church Crisis and the legacy left for Indigenous fisheries.

Burnt Church was a flashpoint in the ongoing saga of the centuries-old treaty that allows native fishers to catch and sell lobsters out of season. The crisis came to a head when non-native fishers protested against Indigenous rights, leaving the federal government flatfooted.

Community members met resistance from people already fishing in the area, said Paul. They were then “targeted by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, and later the RCMP and the Canadian Military. They would take away boats, trailers and all their means, or board boats and arrest people without charge.”

The aftermath of Marshall Decision and Burnt Church lead to an agreement with the federal government to support First Nations fishers with an annual payment of $11 million. That money is spent on training, fishing licenses and boat maintenance.

Any revenues made from fishing have no strings attached, allowing First Nations communities to use the money where they see fit. Paul says the revenues gained from fishing now surpass what most communities make from gaming.

“It’s done in partnership with DFO, so we have to keep working with them, but at the same time we have to keep an eye and criticize them and point out problems with their new policies when they exist.”

One of the latest issues that Indigenous fisheries are facing is access to the rebounding Redfish stock. After more than a two-decade moratorium, Redfish stocks have rebounded and First Nations groups are lobbying the federal government for access. The current federal policy is to guarantee First Nations priority when a new fishery is created. However, Paul says the government is not honouring that commitment.

“The problem with that is our community fish managers are not willing to invest in the specialized equipment to actually fish Redfish if they have no guarantee from the government,” he says. “Whereas non-Indigenous fishermen already have the equipment so they will get a priority.”

Paul says it’s tough since commercial fishing fleets heavily influence the DFO and their goal is to maximize profits. He understands that non-Indigenous fishers have invested heavily in their infrastructure, but says they don’t have a right like First Nations do to the waters.

“We have a right,” he says. “They have a privilege through permits. So we're trying to be respectful about it, but at the same time, we want to make sure a proportion of that actually comes to our community so we can benefit as well.”

The conference continues Wednesday with a panel on the importance of women in sustaining livelihoods and natural resource management.

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