What's Really at Issue in the Nova Scotia Fisheries Crisis?

These are troubled times on the Bay of Fundy. Commercial fishers have blocked Mi'kmaq fishing boats, threatened the fishers, destroyed their property and traps, and even burned down an Indigenous fish plant. What is going on?First, let's say what this crisis isn't about: It's not about the number of lobsters in the bay or on which days they may be caught. Nor is it simply about racism, though all these are undercurrents to the standoff in Nova Scotia.The central issue is whether Ottawa's approach to reconciliation will result in proper management of the fishery. The Sipekne'katik First Nation is emerging as a testcase for a particularly robust form of self-government, and the implications could be far-reaching.Many Indigenous communities have or claim rights to use resources that are shared with non-Indigenous communities, including rights to hunt, cut trees, and harvest other natural resources. Non-Indigenous stakeholders will want to know how far this kind of self-government reaches into their shared resource and when the federal government will intervene to limit it. Toward Self-Regulation Canadians who are trying to understand the Nova Scotia crisis must find it as baffling as it is troubling. On one side, a First Nation is trying to exercise its constitutionally protected right to fish; on the other side, commercial fishers are resorting to violence to try and stop it.As federal Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan notes, the Supreme Court of Canada's R v. Marshall decision recognized the Sipekne'katik's right to fish for a “moderate livelihood” back in 1999. Nor is the resource in danger. Government scientists report that the lobster stocks are healthy, and that the Sipekne'katik fishery is too tiny to pose a significant risk.Commercial fishers thus certainly look like belligerents.What Jordan doesn't say, however, is that twenty-one years after the Marshall decision, the Sipekne'katik are still waiting for the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) to sit down with them and negotiate clear rules around the exercise of their right to fish. DFO has been unwilling or unable to complete this task. Exactly why is unclear.In fact, the Sipekne'katik's decision to establish their own fishery and regulate themselves was a proactive response to successive governments' inaction. If after 21 years DFO still wasn't ready to regulate, they decided that they would.However, when DFO failed to intervene and stop them, commercial fishers got worried that this kind of self-regulation could become the new status quo. And that's when the real trouble started. A Commercial Fisher's View While the violence is deplorable, commercial fishers are not just lashing out. In a presentation to the federal Fisheries Committee this week, Colin Sproule, President of the Bay of Fundy Inshore Fishermen's Association, offered an industry perspective.Atlantic fishers, Sproule tells us, have a long and troubled history with government regulation of their industry, from the collapse of the Atlantic cod fishery to extermination of the groundfish stocks on the Scotian Shelf.Over time, governments and fishers alike have learned a hard lesson: the best way to ensure the sustainability of these resources – and everyone's livelihood – is to “get politics out of the mix.” At bottom, this means establishing a more transparent and open process that gives industry stakeholders a meaningful role in developing resource-management plans.Sproule thinks real progress has been made over the last few decades. He also thinks a decision now to allow First Nations to regulate their own fishery would be a huge step backward that would lead to a patchwork of rules: those made by and for First Nations and those made by the government for commercial fishers – and that, he concludes, would threaten the peace and undermine effective conservation. He points out that the Marshall decision arrives at the same conclusion:The paramount regulatory objective is conservation, and responsibility for it falls squarely on the minister responsible, not on the aboriginal or non-aboriginal user of the resource.In sum, commercial fishers like Sproule do not reject the Mi'kmaq's inherent right to fish, to govern themselves, or to a nation-to-nation approach to managing their affairs. Their concern is focused on conservation of the resource and, more specifically, on who regulates it.While they insist that any talks aimed at setting standards must involve the industry, Sproule thinks this can be squared with the government's commitment to nation-to-nation talks by making industry consultations part of a separate conversation or parallel process.In the end, however, commercial fishers insist that decisions on how to manage the resource must be the result of all these conversations, should be made by the minister, and should lead to “one set of rules for everyone.” The Challenge This poses two questions for the Trudeau government: (1) Does it believe that self-government involves this kind of self-regulation? (2) If so, how will it respond to commercial fishers' concerns over a possible patchwork of regulations?As noted at the outset, the implications could be far-reaching, possibly setting precedents for negotiations in forestry, energy, and elsewhere. These sectors will want to know how the scope of this authority is defined and when the federal government will intervene to limit it.The Trudeau government may be preparing to address the issue. This week Jordan announced that she is working to find a special representative to "help foster the dialogue" between Mi'kmaw and commercial fishers.As for the prime minister, he promises that a solution to the crisis must “be done properly, respectfully and in partnership with everyone involved in a nation-to-nation relationship and bringing along the commercial fishery community as well.”That would be good.Dr. Don Lenihan is Senior Associate at the Institute on Governance and an internationally recognized expert on public engagement, governance, and policy development. For more, visit his website at: www.middlegroundengagement.comAndrew Balfour is Managing Partner at Rubicon Strategy in Ottawa.