GAIL LETHBRIDGE: Trudeau must wade into lobster mess

It is time for Prime Minister to put his money where his mouth is and take over the floundering Indigenous fisheries file.

For someone who has staked so much political capital on reconciliation, he has let this thing go so badly off the rails. 

True, he is dealing with a pandemic and all of the economic, social and political fallout.

But it’s time for the prime minister to roll up his sleeves and sort out the Indigenous moderate livelihood fishery debacle because this isn’t going away.

There has been harassment, vandalized fisheries equipment, fires and threats. RCMP have faced sharp criticism for a failure to protect Indigenous fishers and standing by as a Mi’kmaw-affiliated lobster pound burned.

The most recent casualty of this political calamity came with Membertou Chief Terry Paul stepping down as co-chair and leaving the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaw Chiefs.

This elder statesman says he can’t work with the assembly because the Department of Fisheries is employing a “divide and conquer” strategy.

Then there was the appointment of Allister Surette — an Acadian francophone university president and former Nova Scotia MLA and cabinet minister — as a so-called “neutral third party” in the fisheries dispute. 

With no disrespect to Surette, who has credentials in negotiating fisheries disputes, appointing a former member of “the settlers’ government” to build trust between Indigenous fishers and non-Indigenous commercial fishers in the area — many of whom are Acadian — well, that has the look of appointing a fox to negotiate with the chickens in a coop dispute.

Come on, Mr. Trudeau. This amateur, clumsy and ill-conceived move could easily be slotted into the category of systemic racism, which would be the last thing he’d want.

The optics are so bad here, they are almost laughable — only it isn’t funny to Indigenous fishers who have been waiting 21 years to get clarity on a “moderate livelihood fishery” as stipulated by the 1999 Supreme Court of Canada Marshall decision.

The prime minister needs to take the helm now. And by taking the helm, I don’t mean he should negotiate. In fact, no one in government should be conducting negotiations here.

If Trudeau wants to conduct this fishery negotiation “nation to nation” as he says, why doesn’t he approach it as he would with any other nation? Conduct this negotiation as a proper diplomatic exercise with experienced international diplomats.

Appoint an outside mediator with experience in negotiating treaty-based resource settlements with Indigenous people. And use the language, rules and decorum of diplomacy. It works well in so many disputes between nations.

As one example, I’m thinking of the former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark who in 2008 negotiated that country’s largest-ever settlement with its Indigenous people, the Maoris. 

The $420-million (NZ) deal transferred 176,000 hectares of forest from the New Zealand government to seven Maori tribes. (European colonial settlers had seized land, forests and fisheries resources in the 19th century.)

Clark served as a three-term prime minister of New Zealand (1999-2008) and later in the United Nations development program. 

Like Canada, New Zealand has a long history of fisheries disputes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous fishers. Maoris were given rights in the fisheries, but those rights were later superseded by a federal quota system.

Sound familiar?

Clark may or may not be the best candidate for this role. I mention her only because she represents the sort of person who may be able to help Indigenous fishers and Canada resolve this conflict.

Allowing bureaucrats to make ill-advised appointments, RCMP to stand by while a lobster pound burns and an Indigenous elder statesman to resign as co-chair of the body negotiating with the government — not a productive strategy.

stated that Indigenous relationships would be the most important of his prime ministership.

It takes more than words, promises and apologies. He has to put his convictions to work and by getting his boots on the ground.

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