Mi'kmaq fisher argues feds becoming more aggressive in seizures of Indigenous gear

Minister Bernadette Jordan continues to enforce existing laws in violation of treaties between Canada and Mi'kmaq, says a fisher recently charged for crab trapping despite being authorized to fish for them by his band council.

HALIFAX — A Mi'kmaq man who has been battling for Indigenous fishing rights says the recent seizure of his crab traps suggests Ottawa is becoming more aggressive on the water.

Robert Syliboy said in an interview Tuesday that Fisheries Department officers in a Canadian Coast Guard vessel confiscated two of his $400 traps set in waters off Sherbrooke, N.S., last weekend.

The 27-year-old fisherman from Sipekne'katik First Nation says his chief had authorized the setting of the 10 traps as a food, social and ceremonial fishery for the community in central Nova Scotia.

"I told fisheries officers I was fishing under the chief and council's authority, and all the fish was going for food," Syliboy said. "They disregarded the treaty I was fishing under."

The Indigenous band has cited Supreme Court of Canada rulings, including the Sparrow case in 1990, as affirmations of the Mi'kmaq practice of harvesting fish for ceremonies, food and gatherings.

Last fall, Syliboy was among the more prominent Mi'kmaq fishers who attempted to launch a self-regulated lobster fishery off southwest Nova Scotia. One of his vessels caught fire at the wharf and was damaged beyond repair.

The federal Fisheries Department says it believes existing law means Sipekne'katik requires a communal licence for fishing snow crab under provisions of the federal Fisheries Act. Spokeswoman Megan Gallant said by email that the band doesn't have such a licence.

The department says on its website that it retains the right to regulate Indigenous fisheries for conservation purposes under both the Sparrow decision and the more recent Donald Marshall Jr. decision, which allowed Indigenous fishing in pursuit of a moderate livelihood.

Gallant said on Wednesday that fishery officers first warned Syliboy against fishing in an April 6 phone call, and that his snow crab traps were seized the following weekend.

"These operations are part of routine gear inspections by fishery officers to ensure compliance with the Fisheries Act and associated regulations," she wrote.

Syliboy said he disagrees with the federal interpretation of the Supreme Court's rulings, arguing he retains the right to operate without a federally approved licence if his band has authorized him to fish.

As the possibility of another season of unrest off southwestern Nova Scotia approaches, the fisher said he believes the enforcement action signals Ottawa will not tolerate self-regulated Indigenous fisheries.

"The (coast guard vessel) was very close to my vessel. It was more intimidation than anything, I think. They were on a 100-foot vessel doing circles around me," he said.

"I believe it's getting worse for Mi'kmaq fishers and not better. It's becoming harder to access waters."

Syliboy said he would be pleased to go to court and argue against the seizures, as he feels existing judicial rulings support his view.

However, Colin Sproul, a spokesman for the Unified Fisheries Conservation Alliance — a lobby group representing various non-Indigenous, commercial fishers — said Ottawa's right to regulate remains a key part of Supreme Court of Canada decisions.

"The Sparrow decision is very clear that the right of First Nations are administered through the federal government and the minister, and that she has the ultimate authority for conservation," he said.

Asked whether setting 10 traps for a community feast poses a conservation issue, Sproul responded, "there is a conservation issue on every single pound of fish taken out of the ocean." He said all uses of the resource need to be accounted for "so that all the participants can make responsible management decisions."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 15, 2021.

Michael Tutton, The Canadian Press

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