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Sylvia Bernard offered to go.
“I said ‘No, it might be dangerous’,” recalled her partner, Gary Denny.
It was Sunday afternoon, Dec. 13, and a fishing boat was amongst the traps they set under a moderate livelihood licence issued by the Pictou Landing First Nation.
So Denny launched the family’s 16-foot aluminum boat with a side-by-side and steamed toward the Cape Islander alone.
“He starts coming toward me full speed and I kind of froze, thinking he’s going to get me either way — either he will ram me or his wake will capsize me,” said Denny.
According to Denny, the Cape Islander came within 10 metres and then made a sharp port turn toward the northeast.
As he rode out the swell from the larger boat, he heard the first gunshot.
Bernard, watching from the yard bedecked with the toys of their three children, heard it, too.
Gary just sat there in the boat for what felt like 10 minutes — it wasn’t — it would only have been seconds, and I was yelling at him, I thought he’d been shot. ~ Sylvia Bernard
“Gary just sat there in the boat for what felt like 10 minutes — it wasn’t — it would only have been seconds, and I was yelling at him, I thought he’d been shot,” said Bernard on Monday.
Three shots were fired and Denny said he saw one of them skimming along the water some 15 metres from his craft as the bigger vessel steamed away.
“I was thinking to myself, I might die, I might be injured, but for my people to fish in peace, I was willing to take a bullet,” Denny said Monday.
Sunday’s incident is the latest escalation in this fall’s moderate livelihood struggle.
The Sipekne’katik, Potlotek, Membertou and Pictou Landing First Nations have all issued their own tags for lobster traps to be fished by their members.
The move comes 21 years after the Supreme Court of Canada instructed the fisheries minister to create and consult on a regulatory framework that allowed Mi’kmaw and Maliseet members to earn a moderate livelihood off the resource.
While DFO spent some $540 million buying up commercial licences and transferring them to First Nations, it never began consultation on a separate fishery that addressed the right acknowledged by the court in its famous Marshall decisions.
Moderate livelihood developments
That is until this fall, when First Nations began launching their own fisheries.
Two weeks ago, federal Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan sent Sipekne’katik First Nation a memorandum of understanding that would have provided the band with 10 licences for 70 traps each that had to be fished during the LFA 34 commercial fishery (late November through to spring).
Chief Mike Sack ended talks with Jordan last week, saying his First Nation refused to be lumped in with a commercial fishery.
Sipekne’katik has 15 commercial lobster licences among LFA’s 33, 34 and 35.
There are apparently consultations going on between the minister and other First Nations but Jordan has refused to release further details on them as they are “nation to nation.”
Commercial fishermen have called for a moderate livelihood fishery to be conducted during the local commercial seasons, which were established for conservation and market purposes.
Prices for licences and gear vary according to the area they are fished, but $400,000 is common figure along this stretch of coast, where the commercial fishery runs through May and June.
Many commercial fishermen have been reticent to speak publicly, saying they fear being labelled as a racist or targeted on social media if their names are used.
They say they fear that new effort on a limited resource will hurt their enterprises.
And that the resource has been kept healthy because of voluntary measures adopted by the industry, such as v-notching, trap reductions, escape hatches in traps and returning productive females to the water.
Pictou Landing has 23 commercial lobster licences (15 in LFA 26a, eight in LFA 26b) and 11 Area 19 snow crab licences that it largely fishes with its own fleet.
The moderate livelihood tags issued by the band this fall are for 30 traps each during a self-established two-month fall fishery that wraps up Dec. 15.
“This is something your typical commercial wouldn’t do,” said Denny of Sunday’s confrontation.
“Last year this guy threatened one of our moderate livelihood fishermen with a shotgun.”
RCMP Cpl. Lisa Crouteau said police were first called about shots fired in Pictou Landing at about 5:30 p.m. on Sunday. A 51-year-old Pictou County man was arrested Sunday evening in relation to the incident and three more arrested Monday. The RCMP did not state what charges, if any, are pending.
Pictou Landing Chief Andrea Paul would welcome more information.
“It is absolutely sickening that they would take these extreme measures on our harvesters,” she said. “It was dangerous. It was reckless.”
She hopes the RCMP and courts treat the matter seriously.
“I can’t have harvesters in my community afraid to exercise their right to fish,” said Paul
On Monday morning, Bernard headed out alone to start hauling the family’s traps before their season closes on Tuesday.
A DFO boat was patrolling the area and she didn’t fear from her safety.
Watching from shore, Denny said of the moderate livelihood struggle, “It’s exhausting. But we’re not going to give up.”