The leader of the Nova Scotia New Democratic Party says the province can change fish-buying regulations to accommodate First Nations’ treaty right to buy and sell fish to earn a moderate livelihood.
“When that court-mandated right is not able to be given practical effect by reason of the provincial regulations, so I think that provincial regulations need to be adjusted so that they are in line with the capacity to give effect to the court-mandated right of moderate livelihood fishery,” NDP Leader Gary Burrill said during the first debate between the provincial party leaders in Halifax July 28.
The issue of a moderate livelihood fishery was one of several issues brought up during the first debate among the three political party leaders hoping to win in the upcoming Nova Scotia election on Aug. 17.
The leaders for the Liberal and Progressive parties both said that the responsibility lies with the federal government to define a moderate livelihood before the province can legally buy fish from Mi’kmaw fish harvesters.
Progressive Conservative Party leader Tim Houston said he would pressure the federal government to define a moderate livelihood.
“The province needs to take a very active role in really pressuring the federal government and I know (Liberal Leader Iain Rankin) doesn’t like to pressure the federal government on these types of matters because he reports to the Prime Minister,” Houston said during the debate.
“There will be a moderate livelihood in this province but we need to get it figured out so that their catch can be purchased,” he added.
Liberal Party Leader Iain Rankin said he wouldn’t change the current provincial regulations that require that fish harvesters hold a fishing license issued by the federal department of Fisheries and Oceans before they sell their catch to provincial fish buyers.
“I wouldn’t change our regulations, no. It’s dependent on the federal government. They are the lead on that,” Rankin said.
Mi’kmaw fishers couldn’t sell their catch to fish buyers
In 1999, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that Mi’kmaq, Wolastoqiyik and Peskotomuhkati have a treaty right to catch and sell fish to earn a moderate livelihood under the Peace and Friendship Treaties of 1760-61 their ancestors signed with the British Crown.
The Supreme Court also ruled that the federal government can regulate that treaty right for conservation or other grounds but it must consult with Indigenous people first.
Since Sept. 2020, several First Nations in Nova Scotia have launched their own moderate livelihood fishery despite not reaching an agreement with DFO on a definition of a moderate livelihood fishery. Instead, they drafted their fishery management plans and submitted them to DFO.
Last fall, Mi’kmaw fishers from Sipekne’katik faced strong opposition in southwestern Nova Scotia from non-Indigenous fishers who wanted them to fish during commercial fishing seasons set by the federal government. That opposition quickly turned into threats, vandalism and acts of racism.
The Mi’kmaw fishers also had trouble securing fish buyers due to provincial regulations that prevent licensed fish buyers from buying seafood from fishers who do not have a fishing license issued by DFO. The Sipekne’katik First Nation sued the Nova Scotia government, saying those regulations violate their treaty right.
“Federal government squandered many years” – NDP Leader Gary Burrill
Following the debate, Burrill said the treaty right to earn a moderate livelihood from catching and selling fish shouldn’t be “blocked or prohibited by provincial regulation.”
“The reason all of this area is so full of contention and struggle is that the federal government squandered many years when there could have been effective consultations with Indigenous communities to come to this definition. This is true,” Burrill explained.
“But I also think it’s true that a right is not a right unless it is able to be given concrete effect and the provincial regulations at the moment, prevent that from being so,” he added.
Rankin maintained his party’s stance that it’s the federal government’s responsibility to define a moderate livelihood and not the provincial government’s obligation to amend its fish buying regulations to accommodate the treaty right.
“Our own regulations with our own department of fisheries is dependent upon the federal regulations. Our regulation is to protect health and safety for products being sold,” Rankin told reporters following the debate.