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Lessons from the East Coast native fishery

An unidentified man, framed in the broken window of a fish shack, carries the Warrior Society flag on the wharf at Burnt Church, N.B., on Oct. 4, 1999.


Elsipogtog First Nation in New Brunswick is the flashpoint for a new conflict between aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canadians over natural resource development. Protesters, many of them native, have engaged in violent clashes with the police over fracking for shale gas.

Those with long memories often put Elsipogtog in the same sentence with Burnt Church, another New Brunswick community riven 15 years ago by violence between natives and non-natives over natural resources, in that case the fishery. But few have bothered to find out about the tremendous success story that is the East Coast aboriginal fishery that emerged from Burnt Church, and the Supreme Court of Canada's Marshall decision that preceded it. Out of violent confrontation emerged a modus vivendi that is a model for the country.

The 1999 Marshall decision confirmed Nova Scotia Mi'kmaq Donald Marshall's contention that two treaties guaranteed to East Coast aboriginals the right to earn a moderate livelihood from the fishery. Some aboriginal communities took that as licence to fish at any time, including outside the seasons designated by the federal fisheries department, while non-native fishermen worried about a race-based fishery in which aboriginal fishermen would get privileged access to scarce fish and seafood.

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Early attempts by the federal government to respond to the court decision and the social conflict that followed were cut from the same cloth as the rest of traditional aboriginal policy in Canada. Huge sums were spent to little effect, and many communities proved to have neither the governance structure nor the institutions of transparency and accountability that would allow a successful commercial fishery. Instead of building community skills in the industry, fishing rights were too often passed to non-natives, boats and gear were not maintained and the economic rents squandered.

Things changed in 2007 with the introduction of the right incentives for aboriginal people to realize real value from the fishery. It started with the premise that natives should not have a separate fishery, but should be fully integrated into the existing fishery and follow its rules.

The Atlantic aboriginal fishery is essentially run by aboriginals, through the work of the Atlantic Policy Congress of First Nations' Chiefs Secretariat and communities, but under rules that defy the old stereotypes of opaque and sometimes dodgy business practices.

Focusing on making the fishery a genuine business and training opportunity, aboriginal communities are, for the first time, investing their own money in the fishery. Communities that participate in the fishery must also have a credible business plan, strong governance and a high level of transparency and accountability, or they will not get the government support needed to build the business. Nor is the aboriginal fishery being kept afloat on a sea of government funding. Ottawa spends about $11-million a year on this program (about $260,000 per participating community). In contrast, under the old approach it spent $500-million from 2000 to 2007.

Today, more than 1,400 native people are employed in the East Coast fishery, compared with a negligible number before the Marshall decision. Participation is voluntary, and most communities are seizing the opportunity. By 2019, two-thirds of the aboriginal fishing enterprises are expected to be fully self-supporting.

As much as 20 per cent of the costs of fishery participation are being borne by the communities themselves, as opposed to government money, and that number is rising. Diversification is under way into aquaculture, marketing, processing, new product development and more.

Most encouraging of all, the aboriginal leadership is insisting on using its access to the fishery as a building tool for their people. Gone are the days of renting out fish quotas to non-aboriginals. Boats are owned by aboriginals and crewed by community members.

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In an assessment of this program for the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, business professor Jacquelyn Thayer Scott wrote that it "brings private-sector management and economic rigour to a … regional economic development initiative that focused its efforts on what the clients [that is, First Nations in the region] actually needed."

Will the violent conflict at Elsipogtog ultimately give way to another such quiet success? There are no guarantees, but the East Coast aboriginal fishery shows that when we get native involvement in natural resources right, we create prosperity where it did not exist and lessen social tensions.

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About the Author
Head of Macdonald-Laurier Institute

Brian Lee Crowley is the managing director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an independent non-partisan public policy think tank in Ottawa. More


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