(Meteghan) At the entrance to the Meteghan wharf, Captain Tony Saulnier is busy preparing his 375 lobster cages for the fishing season in Sainte-Marie Bay.
You have to cut the old ties, remove the rusty sections – “the lobster doesn’t like it, maybe that’s a superstition, but I don’t like it either.”
Everything looks peaceful on this very balmy September morning. But the bottom of the air is heavy.
You saw the images go by last year: an aboriginal lobster warehouse set on fire, fights, threats, accusations. On the media surface, everything seems to have calmed down in the region. But nothing is settled.
Since the Supreme Court recognized fishing rights limited to natives in the Maritimes in 1999, conflicts have arisen and have been settled piecemeal, community by community, in Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. But for the past four years, the situation has only gotten worse in this small portion of the Bay of Fundy, one of the great lobster nurseries in the Atlantic.
We’ve never had a problem, we’ve always fished together, there are two guys here (Mi’kmaqs) who have their licenses, who follow the same laws. Last year, I got involved, but there, I am sickened, I remain calm. But it’s our life …
Captain Tony Saulnier
What ignited the powder was to see that under the guise of “subsistence” fishing, native fishermen stock up in large quantities in the summer, during the migration of lobsters – a beast that can travel up to 100 km and which travels from Maine to Nova Scotia to breed. It is impossible to assess these “illegal” fisheries, but for commercial fishermen, it is no coincidence that the stocks are sinking here, and not elsewhere.
The commercial lobster fishery in this region begins on the first Monday in November and ends in May. A winter fishing, essentially, with its cold, its storms. A super supervised fishery: safety rules, size of lobsters, volume of catches… everything is closely monitored by Fisheries and Oceans Canada. And more efficient fishing: the lobster during the moulting season is hungry, and we catch four times more per day.
“My father and my grandfather used to fish for lobster,” Tony Saulnier told me.
The income is good, the price of lobster has never been higher, and the bank lends to captains. But apart from the license, you need a boat ($ 230,000 used for Tony, but easily $ 500,000 new); insurance; “$ 13,000 in cages, just this year”, rigs, herring (the baiting fish, always more expensive), his two crew, and so on.
And in recent years, Baie Sainte-Marie has been one of the rare lobster fishing regions where stocks are declining in Canada. For the fishermen here, the cause is clear: the new aboriginal fishing out of season and without a license. There is the sustainability of the fishery, but above all there is the feeling of injustice.
“We fish in the winter, we have Fisheries and Oceans in the ass, check our catches, our life jackets, and during that time, the others (the Mi’kmaqs) fish in gougounes the summer in illegal boats and illegally pulling lobster trucks, but no one is doing anything, ”a fisherman who does not want to be named tells me.
“The government tells us to calm our fishermen, but something will have to happen, patience is thickened like that”, Ben Nadeau told me, showing very little space between his thumb and forefinger. The former RCMP police officer in this Acadian region of Nova Scotia is now the head of the Maritime Fishermen’s Union in Meteghan. And every day, in his office at the entrance to the wharf, fishermen come to express their anger. He reasons them. But the frustration is building up.
“The guys have decided that nothing will happen before the election, but I guarantee you that by the end of the month, if nothing happens, it could go off anytime. “
10 km away, I am at the Saulnierville quay. Randy Comeau works on his boat.
“Me, I’m caught between the two, my father is Acadian, my mother is Mi’kmaq… At one point, there were 200 commercial fishermen (Acadians) on my land to threaten me, but other times, I received threats from the Mi’kmaqs, so you know… ”
Until very recently, the three small Mi’kmaq bands in the region got along perfectly well with the “non-natives”. It is a mixed population, who has always lived together, attends the same schools.
The unrest began when a larger band from outside the region, that of the controversial Chief Mike Sack of Sipekne’katik, decided to come and fish in the bay.
Despite repeated attempts, I was unable to speak to him. But his line is clear: First Nations have fishing rights; the rest have fishing privileges, which require permits. And in the name of self-determination, it is not up to Fisheries and Oceans to come and manage these rights.
A radical point of view that is not shared by several other indigenous communities in the region, not very happy with the conflicts – nor the competition – that the approach generates. This is not what the Supreme Court said either: fishing rights are recognized for “moderate” income and for ritual reasons. The Marshall decisions (a second was necessary to clarify the first) recognized the federal right to regulate these fishing rights. It remains to define what this “moderates” means …
After last year’s violent incidents, Carole De Potter, Mi’kmaq leader of Bear River, publicly called for discussion and a negotiated approach. The conflict jeopardizes access to the fisheries of his own community.
But since then, the watchword has been discretion and behind-the-scenes negotiations.
At the Saulnierville wharf, where the native fishermen are now grouped, I am told fairly quickly who the Elder is to talk to.
“I used to fish for lobster with my father when I was 8 years old in 1965,” David MacDonald, a Mi’kmaq from the community of Sipekne’katik, tells me.
“In the old days, lobster was food for the poor. My father went to see the people from Fisheries and Oceans, the permits cost 25 cents. They told him: “the natives do not need a permit”. We fished in the summer with my uncle, who worked at Goodyear in Ontario. This is not new. “
“Nothing is hidden, the commercial fishermen are falling for nothing, we just have a few cages,” said Randy Comeau. When we capture females, we punch them, we protect the resource. Would have to be delayed to not do this. Everyone wants to protect her. You know, it’s like everywhere, there’s always a handful of bad apples on each side. I see them [les allochtones] come and take videos, watch us. Listen, me too, if you give me a license with 375 cages, I’ll do like them. But it is not by fishing 200 pounds a day that I threaten them … “
Meteghan, where the Acadian fishermen are, has a larger fleet of larger, better equipped boats compared to the native boats in Saulnierville.
If you add up all the boats in Area 34 in the Bay of Fundy, the 26 Mi’kmaq boats are nothing compared to the few 900 non-native commercial boats.
The problem is that they are all concentrated in Baie Sainte-Marie, where there are only about sixty Acadian commercial boats which are subject to rigid and rigorously enforced rules.
“Fishing is their life, it’s that of their family,” Dan Nadeau told me. All the people you see here, the carpenters, the mechanics, the grocers, the factory workers, the teachers… It’s all about fishing. All they want is everyone to follow the same rules. And because of that, they are called racists. It’s so unfair, we’ve always worked together. “
Let us add that the situation is closely monitored in all the coastal regions, where one wonders how the negotiations are carried out, how the fishing rights will be managed and how “reconciliation” will result.
The only unanimity in the bay seems to be against Fisheries and Oceans, its Minister Bernadette Jordan, Member of Parliament for the region, and more generally the Liberal government, because the file is clearly no longer in the hands of Fisheries managers, but rather of indigenous files.
After winning the province’s 11 seats in 2015, the Liberals retained 10 in 2019, with fairly good margins. The only Conservative MP, Chris d’Entremont, was elected precisely here in the Southwest. And the Conservatives believe he will no longer be alone on Monday night.