Fishing for power

Peace & Security11 Nov 2013Anthony Charles

A fisheries conflict in Canada shows how power dynamics affect the lives of an aboriginal community.

Every student in the fishery field learns about the prevalence of conflict in that sector, but surprisingly, there has been relatively little systematic analysis of those conflicts. An article I wrote rather long ago sought to address this theme, proposing a new way to examine conflicts in fisheries. That article sorted conflicts into categories, everything from disputes between differing groups within the fishery, to those between fishers and government, to issues arising between the fishery and other ocean users, such as aquaculture or oil and gas. What the article did not do was to address the power dynamics in these conflicts, because back then, I did not understand power.

But just as that article was being published, along came the collapse of what had been, at one point, the largest fishery in the world – the cod fishery off the coast from my home in Atlantic Canada. A result of anti-conservationist attitudes, overfishing and governmental mismanagement , this dramatic event deeply affected fishing communities, putting 40 thousand people out of work, and shaking the foundations of this region. In its aftermath, I found myself working closely with small-scale fishing communities, seeing first-hand how differentials in power were playing out in lost or changed fishing livelihoods. Who held the cards after the collapse, and whether communities could counteract the status quo of power, became key questions to address.

It was not long after that, in 1999, that a second momentous event again transformed my home region. Donald Marshall Junior became an icon of aboriginal fishing rights, as his name was attached to a Supreme Court decision recognizing long-standing rights of aboriginal Mi’kmaq communities in Atlantic Canada to fish commercially – the Marshall Decision. This contribution focuses on the aftermath of that court decision. While the story here did not take place in a developing country, those familiar with aboriginal realities around the world will realize that many of the conflict and power and wellbeing issues arising within developing countries, have similar counterparts in aboriginal communities.

The Marshall Decision led immediately to entry of Mi’kmaq people into the lucrative lobster fishery, and subsequent opposition from non-natives who held licenses to the fishery. For some, the opposition was based on concerns for their own livelihood, seeing the new fishery entrants as diluting the value of their lobster license. For others, the root of the opposition was racism. But certainly not all of the non-native fishers were protesting; others were working with the Mi’kmaq, behind the scenes, to find local community-based solutions. That is an inspiring story – a story not of conflict but of cooperation, a story of people from different backgrounds sharing a meal together, a story of talking sticks and eagle feathers. I love that story, but unfortunately, it was not the dominant story.

Instead, the power dynamics were such that the national government (which has huge authority in fishery matters) was able to intervene to thwart those efforts at cooperation, imposing its own path to ‘integrate’ aboriginal communities into the existing fishery management system. Yes, in the end those communities gained access to the fishery, a positive development, but that was done through a top-down government plan – and to this day, Mi’kmaq communities have yet to achieve ‘management rights’, to act fully as managers and stewards of the resources they utilize.

There was such hope, back then, that the Marshall Decision would precipitate new thinking by the national fisheries department, in two key ways: bringing traditional aboriginal thinking on resource management into the fishery system, and leading to devolution of fishing rights. But resistance by the government to these moves has persisted, affecting not only Mi’kmaq communities but also the other small-boat fishing communities I’ve been working with over the years. In particular, the lack of support by Canada’s government has prevented realization of the huge potential for a community-based cooperative path in fisheries or for widespread adoption of aboriginal principles of resource use.

Nevertheless, there are many positive local-level fishery initiatives, both Mi’kmaq and non-native, across Atlantic Canada. Unfortunately, these continue to face a range of threats, and not only from the federal government. For example, some powerful players in the processing and export sector are pushing for a more concentrated and vertically-integrated fishery, at the expense of the diverse community-based fleets in the region. Countering such threats is certainly an important aspect of present-day policy intervention by fishing communities.

On the horizon, there could still be big changes, as long-term negotiations continue between the government and the Mi’kmaq, on broad-based aboriginal rights and resource claims. No one knows how this will end, but perhaps one of the key conflicts will turn out to lie within the national government itself – between that government’s negotiators and its fisheries department. This would arise as the resistance to change that exemplifies the fisheries bureaucracy comes into conflict with the winds of change that may emerge from the negotiations. How the power dynamics will play out in that scenario remains firmly up in the air.