Monday, October 26, 2020

Lobsters and sharing agreements

I find that I support the Sipekne’katik First Nations pretty much unreservedly in their commitment to an indigenous lobster fishery in Atlantic Canada. This backgrounder from the Globe & Mail says the Supreme Court gave the Mi'kmaq a right to a lobster fishery in 1999, but surely it's more that they always had a treaty right to such operations, which the Court merely confirmed.

But in the long run, a piecemeal, court-ordered, one-industry-at-a-time recognition of economic rights is not going to be the path to the self-sufficiency that has to underpin indigenous self-government and reconciliation. I have an article coming in next month's Canada's History about what Canadian historians are telling us about treaties as sharing agreements. Lately it's been shaping how I watch the news from Nova Scotia.

Courts might order an indigenous share of west-coast salmon fishing, say, but what happens after the stocks are fished out? Or a forest is clear-cut, or devalued by climate change? Or a particular oil-field runs out? These things happen, though experts say the southwestern Nova Scotia lobster stock is not endangered right now. No one can deny that the Mississauga of southern Ontario have a treaty right to hunt and fish right across metropolitan Toronto, but can we be literal about that now the game is long gone from the concrete canyons?

Surely what Canada needs to be admitting is that treaties were never about some lobster and salmon, or some stands of trees, or some beaver ponds. They were conceived and settled as sharing agreements. Sharing agreements need to address, not specific (often marginal) resource sectors, but the land and the economy that the treaties were about. The violence of non-indigenous lobster fishers against the Mi'kmaq, both recently and in the past, is appalling. But those furious fishers have a point that they alone should not bear the cost  --real or potential -- of recognizing indigenous economic rights. 

The courts can point the way, but they are never going to get to the kind of broad permanent agreement that is required. That's a political responsibility. And Canadian governments flinch from that responsibility because they suspect that a great many Canadian voters would respond to a general sharing agreement that established a permanent economic basis for First Nations self-government pretty much the way the Saulnierville lobster fishers have been responding to a handful of Sipekne’katik lobster boats. 

Image: Globe and Mail

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