It’s been more than a month since the Sipekne’katik First Nation launched its own self-regulated lobster fishery off the Saulnierville wharf in Southwest Nova Scotia — 21 years after the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in the Marshall decision, affirming the 1760-61 Treaty Rights of the Mi’kmaq to fish for a “moderate livelihood.”
For weeks now we’ve read stories about the violence and ugly confrontations taking place on the shores of St. Mary’s Bay: of a non-Indigenous commercial fisher charged with arson and vandalism; a Digby man charged with assault against Sipekne’katik First Nation Chief Mike Sack; and a burned boat and another case of arson, both of which are still under investigation. At the behest of the Band, the Supreme Court issued an interim injunction to end the blockades, interference, and threats against Sipekne’katik band members. In his decision Justice James Chipman pointed out the historic connections between the Acadian and Indigenous communities saying, “I would hope everyone could agree that violence is no way to sort things out… We are a civilized nation with the rule of law… Canadians are better than this.”
To try to make some sense of the recent turmoil, I turned to Arthur Bull, who is currently an advisor to the World Forum of Fisher Peoples. Over the years, Bull has held positions as Chair of the Rural Communities Foundation of Nova Scotia, Chair of the Nova Scotia Coastal Communities Network, and Co-Director of the Rural Communities Impacting Policy Project — and has been a stalwart advocate of the independent inshore fishery and its vital connection to the fabric that holds coastal communities together. He has also participated in a number of major, multi-year initiatives that were based on collaborations with Indigenous communities, including the Turning the Tides and Coastal CURA projects. As Executive Director of the Bay of Fundy Marine Resource Centre, he worked closely with Bear River First Nation (one of the founding members of the centre), on fisheries, conservation, alliance building, and learning circles. Bull has also been involved in the commercial fishing sector as Coordinator of the Fundy Fixed Gear Council, and President of the Bay of Fundy Inshore Fishermen’s Association.
Bull, who is additionally a musician, also happens to live on Digby Neck, on the shores of St. Mary’s Bay, in the thick of it all.
This interview, which started on Face Time and later moved to email, has been edited for length and clarity.
Linda Pannozzo (LP): How do you view the conflict taking place in St. Mary’s Bay and what do you think might be the pressures and the driving forces behind it?
Arthur Bull (AB): There was an article by the philosopher Cornel West, and he was saying that in the current climate, you’re either a racist or you’re an anti-racist. So, on that point, and not to dwell on it, but my thinking is that there’s two things going on in St. Mary’s Bay. One is about the fisheries, and the other is about the racism that is very deeply ingrained in rural Nova Scotia, and one has churned up the other. And so they’re both issues, but they’re not the same issue, and I don’t think it’s correct to say that the fisheries issue was caused by racism. I don’t believe that. But they have overlapped now, and now we have to face that.
Your question about pressures, I think is a really good way to approach it. If we start off with only the idea of assigning blame, it doesn’t necessarily lead to the best understanding. If your aim is to find out who to hang this on, then maybe you’re going to miss some important stuff about why this is happening? Why now? What’s at play here? There are individuals and there are systemic, social, economic, ecological issues. These are not impossible to understand, but I think it’s hard to understand if you start by saying, “Well, let’s just pick somebody to blame.”
LP: So what do you think is going on in St. Mary’s Bay? What’s your analysis?
AB: Well, I think one of the things that’s happened is after Marshall, DFO signed agreements. There are 13 bands in Nova Scotia and DFO signed individual agreements with 10 of them, and those agreements were modeled on a corporate structure, an employer-employee kind of business structure, more like a community development corporation, owned by the community, not owned by shareholders or individuals. So that’s the model, and there are lots of reasons why they did that and lots of reasons why they signed individual agreements rather than talking nation to nation.
Part of it is that after Marshall there was a huge panic on all sides. Nobody was prepared. Nobody thought that would be the outcome, least of all the DFO, and the chiefs in Nova Scotia were not prepared either, and that was the model at hand. That also happens to be the model the DFO prefers overall in the fisheries — a vertically integrated corporate structure. That’s how they see a modern fishery going and that’s been true for 40 years.
So they used that model [to transfer commercial access] and then according to the MacDonald Laurier report that came out last year, that’s been quite successful. The income from fisheries [to Bands] went from $3 million to $150 million. Two thousand plus jobs in all of the Maritimes, in Mi’kmaq and Maliseet communities, were created. By any account, that’s pretty successful and unless someone can show me evidence that it’s not true, I’ll take it at face value. Those jobs are livelihoods by any dictionary definition and I’m pretty certain they’re moderate. They’re not $500,000 a year jobs, they’re regular household income.
Now the latest thing I’ve seen from the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaw Chiefs is they’re saying, “You know, all that stuff that happened, all those agreements, that wasn’t an implementation of Marshall, period.” They’re very clear on that. Implementing Marshall would be about owner-operator — they don’t use that language but I read into it — it would be more about families and individuals having enterprises, and it wouldn’t be band-owned companies. It would be where they can go out fishing under some sort of communal management and they don’t have to be an employee of the band to go out, and they’re self-employed in some way. It would be people who want to exercise their treaty rights, and go fishing.
That leads to a lot of questions about what that has in common with the non-Indigenous owner-operator fishery and how that would be managed collectively, but still having independent enterprises.
But then, if you want to be a small-minded-taxpayer’s-rights-type-of-person, “Well, what about the $500 million dollars [the DFO] just spent on the Marshall implementation? Was that just a big mistake?” It was an economic investment, and in truth Canada owes the Mi’kmaw people way more than that. It might be about creating jobs, or some sort of royalty fisheries where they just lease quota where there’s a lot of brokerage going on, or buying into an offshore fishery, or whatever other fisheries business opportunity that arise. Well, that’s fine. It just wasn’t the implementation of Marshall. For me, it was really amazing to see that coming from the Chiefs, saying that wasn’t Marshall, because they signed those agreements, that wasn’t forced on anybody.
The proof that it wasn’t forced on anybody was the fact that three bands didn’t sign, including Bear River First Nation, which specifically didn’t sign because they didn’t want to be integrated into a corporate fishery. They were very deliberate, very intentional about that. So that wasn’t forced on anybody, but it’s the way it happened, it’s the way it unfolded.
It is also interesting to note that Bear River First Nation has also taken a very principled stand relating to communities and adjacency. The voice of the bands that are located near St Mary’s Bay in the traditional district of Kespu’witk has been notable for its absence. Now the Chief and Council of Bear River First Nation has recently written an open letter to the Minister that makes it clear that her band has not been respected throughout this whole crisis. I do not expect that there will be rallies in support of Bear River First Nation or anything like that, but I think that we could all gain something by paying attention to the dignity and humility that the Bear River First Nation brings to the current situation.
LP: You’ve already touched on this, but I’d like to ask you more about the communal commercial licences, which The Examiner explored in Part 1 of our series. The Marshall implementation involved a voluntary licence buy-back program, so the DFO bought commercial licences and boats and gave them to First Nations. This transfer of access was thought of by DFO as satisfying the moderate livelihood rights. But the way things unfolded, the commercial access never fulfilled the moderate livelihood rights. It did provide some employment but the commercial access was largely leased out by the Bands and so has provided a much needed income stream. In hindsight, some have said these commercial licences could have been divided up into smaller shares, or moderate livelihoods, and provided to Band members.
AB: Well, that probably would have made sense but what comes to my mind about that is that you’ve got a much tougher job there. What happened in the under 45-foot groundfish fishery with us, and why I got involved in 1995-1996, is there was a huge protest movement to stop individual [transferable] quotas from coming into the inshore fishery. Every DFO building in Nova Scotia was occupied for a month. Five-thousand people marched holding onto a rope. That’s when I got involved and out of that protest, DFO said, “Alright, we won’t do individual quotas, we’ll just give you the quota by county or region.” We got Digby and the Upper Bay [of Fundy]. “You guys just go fishing. We don’t care what you do. We’ll shut you down as soon as you’ve caught it. We’ll monitor the catch.” So, in several of those areas, the fishermen said, “Fine, we’ll manage it ourselves, and we’ll set the limits.” One of the reasons that happened is because DFO lost the capacity to manage any kind of limits because their budgets had been cut so badly.
There was this whole civil society, self-governance thing set up where the fishermen basically managed that whole sector.
But, it was a huge amount of work. I mean, you’ve got compliance issues, you’ve got governance issues, you’ve got issues about how you divide it up — we had gillnetters, long liners, hand liners, including Acadians and Anglos together in one group dividing up quota. There were a whole lot of meetings and it was just very intensive work to do that. It’s like running a cooperative. You’ve got all these independent producer enterprises who have agreed to be under a collective governance body. We never got to the marketing properly because the industrial fleets collapsed the stocks they were fishing in the Bay of Fundy, so it eventually ended — well, it’s just halibut now. But anyway, the point I’m trying to make is they had all these individual owner-operators, individual people with licences…That [creates] a governance issue, which is not a bad issue. To me, the most exciting possibility in the fisheries is community-based management, I absolutely believe it’s how the future of the fishery should go. This concept of self-management, or self-goverance, is one of the positive things about the Sipekne’katik’s management plan.
The other problem the inshore fisheries has relates to the owner-operator policy. Because, if everybody has this many traps — there’s no quota in lobster — you can be sure that somebody sooner or later is going to come knocking on the door and say, “Look, I’ve got a cheque for $20,000 for you today, sign that over,” and you say, “Well, the government won’t let me.” And they say, “That’s OK because we can do a trust agreement under the table, and the lawyer will sign it, and we’ll have this partnership, quote unquote, which basically says, “You work for me, or I can fish those fish, or those traps or whatever.” It seems quite possible that will happen.
LP: What about in the lobster fishery?
AB: Well, it’s already happening in the lobster fishery. I mean, the inshore fishery is being taken over as we speak by these trust agreements and the owner-operator policy has been in place. The DFO didn’t need to create it, they just weren’t enforcing it and were kind of looking the other way because they kind of liked the corporate model and they’re not upset about seeing the end of the inshore fishery.
And by the way, that’s why the herring, the scallop, the lion’s share of the groundfish, all of those fisheries as well as the offshore lobster are all corporate now, through that mechanism. It contravenes the DFOs licensing policy, which is an owner-operator, fleet separation policy — separating the land-based processing from the harvesting, but DFO quietly ignored that. So those fisheries are already gone. They’re already corporate. The famous Digby scallop fishery is owned by a handful of men, and it’s essentially a sweat shop on the ocean. But the point is that the lobster fishery is the last fishery, which is still community based, it’s in fishing villages, it’s family based and it still largely is. I think DFO may have really slowed down the takeover by these trust agreements by putting it into regulation, but there’s still a lot going on.
Glossary of terms (open in new tab).
LP: So why does the DFO have these policies if they are in a way, undermining them themselves by not enforcing them? And also, the way the DFO implemented the Marshall decision — by creating communal commercial licences to which the owner operator policy don’t apply — also indirectly undermines the objective of the policy, which is to protect the inshore lobster fishery, doesn’t it?
AB: Yes, well DFO are not keen on the policy, and the licensing policy came in in the 1980s, but it’s a good question. There’s sort of contradictory movements within the federal government. On one side you have a very neoliberal market-based idea that says all you need to do is financialize the quotas and put them on the market to be bought and sold and leased and the markets will settle everything. This was the dominant point of view, especially in the 1990s, and it still is. On the other side is a very clear policy that basically says we need to have a harvesting sector that’s independent of the processing sector. But I believe the dominant view is still that we need to have a modernized, vertically integrated corporate fishery.
Why is most of the dairy quota in Ontario owned by Kraft, instead of by independent family farms?
It wasn’t market forces that did that, it was government policy — government designed and supported monopolies. The market would never do that by itself. It takes government to actually implement that.
LP: How do you see the interests of the inshore commercial fishers being similar to the interests of Mi’kmaq moderate livelihood fishers? Is there an overlap here, because I remember back in 1999 after the Marshall decision, I interviewed Don Grady, who has since passed away, and he was representing the hook and line fishermen at the time, and talked about how their interests and those of the Mi’kmaq were very much the same. Would you agree?
AB: There’s a long history to that and there are definitely common interests, on different levels. So historically, for example, the first time I was working for the fishermen here — the Bay of Fundy Inshore and the Fixed Gear Council — the first time we actually sat down with First Nations was before Marshall, when the DFO and one of the big offshore companies was proposing a krill fishery, which is just like an ecological error of major proportions. I was the chair of the Coastal Communities Network at the time and we had a press conference, and it had the Mi’kmaq Fish and Wildlife Commission, it had the North Atlantic right whale people, it had EAC [Ecology Action Centre], and we got a piece in The Globe and Mail because it was like, “Why are these people together, this is an unusual coalition.” We stopped the krill fishery, by the way, and it was never revived as far as I know. That shows the potential power of that alliance.
When we met with the staff of the Mi’kmaq Fish and Wildlife Commission at that press conference we said, “We’re doing this community based management,” and they said, “That’s what we’re doing.” So we started this dialogue, and then Marshall happened… and out of that came 10 years, at least, of collaborative work between Acadia First Nation, Bear River First Nation, Bay of Fundy Inshore Fishermen’s Association, Fundy North in New Brunswick, the Mi’kmaq Confederacy in PEI, St. Mary’s University, and the University of New Brunswick.
So on one level, there’s the question of community-based management, and there are different ways to talk about that. But it certainly seems to me, the statement from the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaw Chiefs about the moderate livelihood fishery says they certainly want it to be small-scale. So there’s a huge conversation to be had.
I’m still quite involved internationally with the international social movement of small-scale fisheries, which is 90% of the people who fish in the world. I work with the World Forum of Fisher Peoples as an advisor. One of the things that we worked on and it took seven years, was to get the FAO [Food and Agricultural Organization], the United Nation’s food agency, to bring forward voluntary guidelines on small-scale fisheries, and they approved it, although Canada tried to block it. But finally, Canada did sign it and it’s a powerful statement. So there is an opening now. If you have bands with small-scale fisheries who identify as such and want to have small boat fisheries — which is really the future of the fishery — then they have a huge amount to talk to the inshore fishermen about.
A small-scale fishery is also about the fact that they’re independent. So it’s also about the economic business structure. Right now the inshore fishery is embattled — they’re left with one species now and basically, that’s the last big prize for the corporate sector. And they’re basically under huge, huge pressure now. There’s a long history to that and it’s gone from one fishery to another, but these guys all used to fish groundfish or herring down here and they’ve lost those income streams. They used to be able to switch over after the lobster finished and go gill netting or some of them had shares in herring weirs, but anyway, they’ve lost everything, except for this one last species.
They’re also under pressure from some other sides, which comes back to the question of what are the common issues, because then there’s a set of issues that will affect everybody and that is oil and gas exploration, right whale conservation, tidal energy, and climate change, which is probably the biggest one. If that animal gets sick, the economy of southwest Nova will go down including the bands. This will be the worst case scenario. It’s going well now, it’s incredibly successful. But they’ve got a lot of these other pressures, and they are common pressures.
My last involvement in this was facilitating a table that was initiated by DFO Yarmouth, with the five bands who are fishing down here and the five fishermen’s associations. I did that for two years.
[In September of 2018 the group put out this press release.]
LP: When was that?
AB: It ended last February. Sipekne’katik First Nation came to a couple of meetings, Acadia First Nation, Bear River First Nation, Glooscap First Nation, Millbrook First Nation, and KMKNO. Then there were the fishermen’s associations, the Bay of Fundy Inshore, Coldwater, Brazil Rock, the Maritime Fishermen’s Union Local 9, and somebody from the LFA 34 advisory committee. It had all the players there. The idea was to get people together who were actually involved in the fishery, the fisheries managers and/or the fishermen’s reps from the associations. I facilitated that.
It was very, very respectful, and it was a really good meeting of people bringing good will to the table, and importantly 100% supportive of treaty rights, the right to food, the right of commercial fishery. And, I have to say, both DFO and the RCMP were very constructive and thoughtful contributors to these discussions as well. It doesn’t exist now, unfortunately.
LP: Why is that?
AB: It ended because some of fishermen’s associations were going on to meet with some of the Mi’kmaq leadership at a higher level, and at the time this seemed like a good outcome, so the existing group was discontinued. In retrospect, some might now say it would have been helpful to have this space in recent months.
They identified common issues, including oil and gas and conservation. These are the threats that are happening. It didn’t go into the corporate concerns because that’s a little complicated, and it’s also not really an issue from the Mi’kmaq point of view — that’s not their problem at this point. They’ve got a corporate sector, but my sense is that that’s not what they’re worried about right now. I don’t know what they’re worried about, it’s not for me to say, but Membertou, for example, is taking a corporate approach to this, for example, as an economic development opportunity… where the band gets a return on that investment.
Those sorts of questions didn’t come to that [round] table at all. It was just really about the stuff that was bubbling up in St. Mary’s Bay and to have a space where people at least could meet. There were no minutes, there was no agenda and no decision-making. There was no conflict resolution. It was just, “What do you guys want to talk about this time?” That went on, maybe once a month during the off season, when the stuff was happening.
LP: What was “the stuff” bubbling up in St. Mary’s Bay? Are you referring to the fishing out of season?
AB: What was happening is there was a perception that a small number of people were doing a fairly significant amount of fishing, running a commercial fishery and saying it was a food [FSC] fishery, and DFO not willing to actually regulate that for various reasons. So that’s going on and people in the community are watching this happen — like truckloads of fish going to the airport under the guise of a food fishery. Later, the pretext for this fishery focuses more on the moderate livelihood. But it looks like there’s an open-ended, unmanaged, unregulated fishery and in 2020 that can’t happen…the oceans are practically already empty.
LP: Do you think this recent dispute or conflict that we’re seeing is a culmination of a number of years of this kind of tension building?
AB: Oh yes, definitely, there was a perception that there was increasing, aggressive, unmanaged, unregulated lobster fishing in the off-season in St. Mary’s Bay, for three years or more, before the [Sipekne’katik] management was announced and launched. This meant that tensions were rising every year. The group [I facilitated] formed to try and at least keep it from blowing up. Just to have a place for people to talk. But yes, this has been building for a long time.
One thing that’s really interesting is that when Sipekne’katik First Nation came up with a management plan, I thought it was a step in the right direction. That’s a very modest fishery, it appears to be a well-managed and it’s a well-designed plan. And the fact that they want to manage it themselves, guess what? That’s what we were trying to do.
The state management of the fisheries is one of the ecological tragedies of the last century, and is an abject failure. Canada is not alone, but we’ve got one of the worst records — the collapse of the Northern Cod is one of the greatest ecological disasters in history. So the state management of fisheries is not working so well, we’ve got to manage it ourselves, and so the fact that they were saying we want to manage it ourselves — that was part of Marshall — that also looked promising to me.
Unfortunately, the level of trust on all sides appears to be very low right now, and the temperature is still really high. This cannot all be put on the fishermen’s associations, since they don’t control what every individual decides to do at the wharf, or even control their own membership. It’s not like a cult or something. So, they’re driven by their membership somewhat, and who knows who started cutting the traps, I don’t know that, but I don’t think that was a strategic move from the leadership. I could be wrong about that, but my guess is those were some individuals who said “We’re going down there and doing something.”
But none of this is a defence of vigilantism. I don’t think there is any good argument for that and I don’t think it has any legitimate place in Canadian society. To be clear, vigilantism is almost the opposite of civil disobedience in the Thoreau/ Gandhi/ King tradition. In that tradition, people go to jail for non-violent actions. All three of those men did. That is, you submit to the law and go to court in order to get the law changed. It’s not the same as breaking the law. I would say that Donald Marshall Jr., along with Viola Desmond, is the greatest example of this tradition in Canada.
But the other interesting piece of background about this is that in St. Mary’s Bay, before the Marshall decision, there was also a free-for-all fishing because DFO was not willing to regulate. DFO Yarmouth would pull traps out of the water and then be told by Ottawa to put them back, and they had every non-Indigenous poacher in this part of the province in there, but also they had people coming from outside Nova Scotia. You could come in and make a few thousand bucks. It’s really easy to fish in St. Mary’s Bay in the summer, so there was a free-for-all and there was a huge amount of tension, before Marshall. In fact, Marshall solved that problem in 1999.
LP: In what way did Marshall solve the problem?
AB: Because most bands — the ones that signed — were issued tags, so DFO enforcement could identify which traps were ‘legal’ and which were not, and Ottawa let them do their job. However, there were still boats, mostly from Sipekne’katik I believe, that were fishing out of season, and still some tensions around that.
LP: But how did Marshall solve the problem of all the non-Indigenous poachers?
AB: Yes, there was a major problem with non-Indigenous poachers who were taking advantage of the lack of enforcement. After Marshall my understanding is that local DFO were given the green light to haul untagged traps and lay charges.
I don’t know if this argument is being made but I think this thought is in people’s minds: If DFO says, “Well, we’re not going to regulate that. We’re going to let it go. We’ll just accept Sipekne’katik’s plan,” that will mean DFO is not going to haul traps, and then we’ll have a free-for-all again and it’ll involve the 10% criminal element that exists everywhere — they’ll be out there like they did in 1998-99 — and it will involve people from all the other 12 bands too.
There’s a long, long history and then there’s what happened after Marshall, which I think you probably heard about — the Eagle feather story?
LP: No, I don’t think I heard about that. Tell me.
AB: Well, in St. Mary’s Bay, after Marshall, there was a lot of fishing going on and there was such confusion and panic and the Reform Party was down here telling people they were going to lose their homes. It was just a terrible, toxic situation. So there were at least 600 or 700 boats tied up in Yarmouth, belonging to non-indigenous fishermen who said, “We’re going to go out and deal with this ourselves.” And they said to their leaders, “You got to meet with those chiefs and we’ll give you until our next meeting, later this week, and then we are going to go and do this.” These folks are deer hunters, and there were rumours about guns being present. Really scary. Really frightening. And so they said to their reps, “Go meet.”
There was no government there, no DFO, no media, no lawyers, no facilitators. They were in a little village outside of Yarmouth. There was no publicity or anything. We got there and two chiefs from this part of the province were going to be there, and one of them showed up and the other one didn’t show up. And we sat there, it was really tense, nobody was speaking, the tension was rising and finally in came Chief Frank Meuse from Bear River First Nation, with an eagle feather. He said, “Well, I’d like to ask a favour, if we could just pass this thing around and the person holding it will speak. But I’d like you to speak not for yourself, but for your grandfather, for your grandmother.” So the eagle feather goes around and everybody breaks down. People start to talk about their childhood, about poverty. It goes around and it’s very emotional. It comes back around and Chief Meuse says, “I’d like to send the eagle feather around again.” So it goes around again. Very intense. So, it takes a long, long time and finally it comes around and people get up and actually hug.
These are Sou’west Nova fishermen… not exactly what we were expecting, and somebody says, “Wait a minute, we didn’t talk about the fishery at all. We didn’t figure this out.” So we sat down and in about 10 or 15 minutes we figured the whole thing out: How many traps, how many boats, how would a buyout plan work? Basically, that was it, and then somehow Chief Frank Muise got a roll of paper towels and these colored markers and all together, we made this banner that said, “peace.”
Then they went to the meeting at the Yarmouth high school with all the fishermen there and Chief Debbie Robinson from Acadia First Nation went up on the stage, and got a standing ovation. So that moment was why there wasn’t shooting here, and that’s why there were 10 years of collaboration and common ground and not everything was perfect, but it was transformative and was needed. That wasn’t technocratic, it wasn’t even talking about treaties. There was a much deeper meeting of people.
I once said to Chief Frank Meuse, “We’re telling this story all the time — is that OK?” He said, “It’s a teaching story now. It’s a story that needs to be told because of what it holds in it.”
So that’s the history here. I don’t know how that fits with what’s going on now. I think it’s important to remember it happened because it’s the same stuff, it’s the same people, sometimes it’s even the sons now that are involved, 21 years later.
I don’t know what it all means, except it does point to what’s sort of conspicuous by its absence and that is there’s no space now for the conversation to even happen. It doesn’t have to be that again — I think that was a one-off, amazing, kind of thing, our society doesn’t provide those spaces, and particularly not in this situation.
From a fishermen’s association point of view, part of that frustration is they know there are negotiations going on about the moderate livelihood fishery, but they’re not part of it. They say, “We’d like to know about it. We’d like to be observers or be part of it, this has to do with us and basically, we’re being told flat out, ‘No.’” In truth I think there is a real legal reason for that, since it is strictly between the Crown and the Mi’kmaq. But you can see where the frustration would come in. For me it points to the need for some sort of parallel process, as well as increased local dialogue amongst all the players.
Anyway, I myself do not think the Minister is the villain in this tragedy.
LP: Maybe there isn’t a villain.
AB: Oh, wouldn’t that be interesting? Maybe there’s no one to hang the blame on. That this is a situation that is the result of what you could call collective trauma on several sides. The biggest collective trauma being what’s happened to Indigenous people in this part of the world, but also the collective trauma of what’s gone on in the fisheries. Also what happened to the Acadians. There’s a lot of stuff way beneath the surface. It’s not lawyer stuff, it’s not bumper sticker stuff.
It’s a situation that’s very difficult, and very painful. But, I don’t think it’s insoluble, by the way, I think this is going to work out.
Coming back to your earlier question, “What’s the common ground here?” I think it will be found. People don’t like conflict. I really don’t think people seek it out. In my experience, people are so relieved when there’s a way to resolve conflict.
Meanwhile, the corporations would love to see quota. They’d love to see the end to this effort — controlled fishery. That’s what they’d prefer. DFO stopped the trust agreements to some extent, they’ve put it into law, as a matter of fact. So, they can’t keep doing it with the trust agreements so how about doing it with quota, because quota happens overnight. Once quota is on the market then whoever’s got capital will buy it.
LP: So that’s what I’m ultimately wondering about. How is the chaos taking place in the inshore going to benefit the corporate sector? Maybe that’s just me being cynical, but I feel like we’ve seen it already: chaos from the groundfish collapse allowed a lot of that quota to move into the hands of the corporate sector, as an example.
AB: It’s a really good question. I mean, when it comes to quota [in the inshore lobster fishery], the shock doctrine theory would be, “Let’s let this thing really unwind to the point where the government throws up its hands and says, “We’re sorry, we have no choice, we don’t want to do this but we have to do this.” Then on the Indigenous side, there’s more business minded folks saying, “Lobster quota will simplify this.”
The inshore fishery is going to be weaker as a result of this. I mean, they’ve lost the high ground in public opinion, not locally, but nationally. So if I was the offshore [Clearwater] I’d say, “That’s a good thing.” It’s not that they hate coastal communities, it’s a business plan: owning the whole value chain is a good business plan.
I would guess that having to negotiate price with independent producers isn’t [Clearwater’s] optimal scenario. Their optimal scenario is they have people who work for them who go out and harvest — even if it’s an organized workforce. I don’t think the collapse of the inshore fishery is Clearwater’s main priority. Right now they are trying to get sold and their big interest right now is just getting the best deal.
One thing they arranged with the federal government from the very beginning of Marshall was that this was not going to hurt them. They said, “This is all on the inshore, this won’t touch us. In fact, we will benefit.”
LP: Were there ways the corporate sector benefited from the Marshall implementation at the expense of the small coastal communities?
AB: After Marshall a lot of the groundfish quota, because of the process with the ITQs [individual transferable quotas] one company down here had amassed a large chunk of the groundfish quota in Digby county, and after Marshall the DFO took some of the Marshall money and bought it all, let’s say $15 million worth of quota, and gave it to Cape Breton bands, who then immediately leased it to the Pubnico dragger fleet, down in Yarmouth County. Then they came right back up and fish it in the Bay of Fundy.
So people here were saying, “Well, wait a minute, that was our catch history. That was a fishery we built up over decades and it was stripped out of here, given to Cape Breton bands, then they leased it to another company in Shelburne and they came and fished it right off our shores.” People were just shaking their heads.
So we went to DFO — and when I say “we” I mean someone from the Maritime Fishermen’s Union, someone from Acadia First Nations and a couple of other people — and we went to senior DFO and said, “Well, for goodness sake, just leave it in this part of the province. We don’t care if you put it on the draggers. Give part of it to the Acadia First Nation and we’ll fish it with them. We’ll mentor them.” And so I was there and a senior DFO person in charge of the fisheries management laughed at us out loud and said, “You don’t understand how this fishery works. The whole thing was one package and you don’t have any idea how this fishery works,” and we were shown the door.
LP: So what did he mean by that?
AB: He meant that this was purely business transaction, and it had nothing to do with communities. There’s no such thing as adjacency. This is just a business transaction and this deal didn’t just happen that way, they designed it that way. This is strictly a market process. People here, in general, were shocked and angry.
The implementation of Marshall was never audited by the Auditor-General. There was a lot of shady stuff going on, and First Nations did not win out in that. They often got crummy boats, and there was just a lot of shenanigans happening, and $500 million dollars just zoomed through here. Everybody got their hand in that pot.
LP: So, the Marshall decision was obviously a very important court decision and the Mi’kmaq have this right to a moderate livelihood, but at the same time, it seems like the DFO used the implementation of the decision as an opportunity to undermine the inshore and the independence of the lobster fishery.
AB: Or to put it another way, they saw Marshall as a chance to strengthen the status quo. Whereas some of us, when we saw the language “moderate livelihood” we thought, “Wouldn’t that be amazing to have a whole fishery run on that concept.” We never heard that word ever used before. Moderate, what’s moderate? Maybe it simply means not always having to maximize profits for shareholders and owners, which is the primary job of corporations…always go for the jumbo size.
We’d been working with First Nations and this sounds so naïve now, but we thought this was a transformative moment for the whole fisheries. This is what we need: a whole new set of values and a way of looking at this in a much more moderate way. We thought the Marshall decision would finally challenge the status quo, but instead DFO, very deftly, made it bolster and reinforce the status quo. So, you’re right about that. It’s not so much about, “How can we harm the inshore fishery, but how can we stay on course and modernized the fisheries?”
So, that might involve the end of some of these fisheries. When I first worked here in this little area, there were 200 to 250 hand liners. That’s one guy in a boat with a hook and line. And DFO said, “We want these people out.” And that was our struggle, that’s why I got involved. There’s not a single hand liner left. Those were all moderate livelihoods. There were thousands of them around, and they’re all gone.
I think when Marshall happened, the DFO basically saw this as a way to align it with their mission, which is a corporate, vertically integrated, industrialized fishery. I don’t think they would be sorry to see the end of the independent inshore lobster fishery.
And now that the lobster fishermen, somewhat through their own fault, or judgement, have played into this, they’re in trouble. They don’t have many allies anymore. It’s a very sad thing, but I still think there is potential for alliances. I still believe that. There are real, substantial common interests and if people could just move away from their positions and move toward their interests — and that’s a big “if” because the positions have become hardened — I think the common interest is there. But you can’t identify the common interests until you have the space, with people sitting in the room together. A wise man once said to me, “Here we all are together. There must be a reason.”
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