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The current row over Indigenous fishing rights has the Maritimes on edge. Over the past 20 years, the implementation of the Supreme Court’s Marshall decision has led to the most successful commercialization of Indigenous harvesting rights in Canadian history. But the issue has now become a tinder box that threatens to engulf the whole region.
The Supreme Court decision affirmed the Indigenous right, based on 18th-century treaties with Maritime First Nations, to fish for commercial purposes. Yet the judgment said that First Nations have the right to earn a “moderate livelihood,” which is a vague and undefined term. It also left the matter of Indigenous involvement in the management of natural resources unresolved.
These are complex and difficult issues. Expanding Indigenous fishing inevitably runs up against the non-Indigenous commercial fishery. Expanding Indigenous involvement in fishery management, similarly, would challenge existing management systems while giving First Nations a formal role that exceeds that of non-Indigenous fishers.