After being accused of inaction and indecision in protecting the moderate livelihood fishery in the southwest part of Nova Scotia, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) continues facing criticism.

Recently, the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaw Chiefs claimed the federal government failed them after authorized Mi’kmaq community harvesters from both Potlotek and Eskasoni First Nations had over 200 legal traps seized by DFO conservation and protection officers in St. Peter’s Bay.

The assembly suggests the seizure of these traps by local officers is without the authorization or authority of their department or minister, calling the move “unacceptable and unlawful.”

Chiefs and band councils in both Potlotek and Eskasoni, along with the assembly, have demanded the return of seized traps immediately, and hosted a peaceful protest with about 100 people from First Nation communities across Cape Breton at the DFO office in Lennox Passage on October 21.

Harvesters in both communities are seeking donations of lobster traps or funds to purchase traps to replenish their stock and allow them to continue to fish under the Netukulimk Livelihood Management Plan.

As reaffirmed in the 1999 Marshall Decision, the Netukulimk Livelihood Fishery is legal, something Chief Wilbert Marshall of Potlotek First Nation said their fishers are extremely proud to be involved with.

In a video uploaded to Facebook recently, Chief Marshall said he hopes the DFO “stays away, keeps the peace,” by leaving fishermen alone. He noted that young people from his community now have an opportunity they didn’t have before.

But he noted that supporters of the fishery “will not stand by and watch DFO seize any more livelihood traps,” pointing out that they will continue to exercise their treaty rights.

To ease the tension, the Mi’kmaq of Nova Scotia and the DFO have entered into discussions.

On October 22, members of the assembly met with DFO regional director general Doug Wentzell, in an on-the-record consultation meeting and under the terms of reference for a Mi’kmaq-Nova Scotia-Canada Consultation Process.

Additionally, they met with DFO’s lead negotiator Jim Jones, in an off-the-record discussion, protected under the 2007 Made-In-Nova Scotia Process Framework Agreement, on the Mi’kmaw Right to fish for a moderate livelihood.

While DFO conservation and protection officers – who seized the traps from Potlotek and Eskasoni harvesters – were also invited to attend the consultation discussions to explain their actions, they refused. DFO representatives who did show up said they would not exercise authority over conservation and protection officers.

To not even have representatives of the officers present was a critical mistake at a critical moment, as assembly co-chair and former fisheries lead Chief Terrance Paul said, describing the talks as “roadblocks” that are not moving forward. In the days that followed, Paul resigned his post on the negotiating committee out of frustration with the pace of talks.

These talks seem to be failing despite the fact that the Mi’kmaq of Nova Scotia have done their due diligence, by bringing all documents – including their Community Netukulimk Livelihood Management Plans – to the table.

Chief Paul said discussions broke down through no fault of the Mi’kmaq, charging that the federal government “refuses to look beyond their colonialized approach” because they have not recognized their Supreme Court affirmed right for over 21 years, and has no intentions of doing so now.

The assembly said despite what is being said by Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan publicly about working in good faith with the Mi’kmaq, that is not the direction her team is taking.

Local First Nations residents have questioned whether the minister knew about the trap seizures, and if she did then how can the DFO negotiate in good faith. But if Jordan didn’t know about this, then why not, and if so, does she have control over her department?

The DFO has achieved the rare feat of appearing too hands-off in one part of the province, while being perceived as over-zealous in another region.

The only commonality is that in both cases, the DFO is being rightfully accused of a lack of communication with commercial fishermen and their organizations, as well as with Mi’kmaq fishermen and their representatives, not to mention the media and public which have been left hanging for a couple of weeks now regarding the situation in St. Peter’s Bay.

Oddly enough the one thing both Native and non-Native fishermen can agree on is that federal officials have completely dropped the ball on this file, and refuse to take charge of a situation over which they are responsible.

Perhaps their mutual distrust of federal authorities might be a way to find common ground and dig out of a rut that threatens to poison relationships and communities, disregard legal rights, and devolve into violence and criminality.

In the absence of his, hopefully the DFO and the minister will see the light, and do more, or do it better, to help bring this crisis in for a landing.