Nova Scotia’s Billion-Dollar Lobster Wars

Sproul was careful to place the blame for the fisheries crisis and the Clearwater deal—what he called “parallel problems”—on the Trudeau administration. Meanwhile, on the French Shore, the conflict churned. In November, 2021, during the second year of the Sipekne’katik’s treaty fishery, the lobster pound in New Edinburgh lit on fire, the flames lapping over Saint Mary’s Bay. “Some things seem to have a tendency to burn,” an Acadian captain told me.

The Clearweater deal consolidated the company’s influence in the industry, and some feared that it would somehow find a way to exploit Mi’kmaw fishing rights in order to gain access to inshore waters. “Everywhere in Canada, big, huge companies are forming partnerships with First Nations to get access to resources—to get around NIMBYism and to get around all other kinds of regulatory barriers,” Rick Williams, a fisheries consultant, said. Premium Brands, the Mi’kmaw coalition’s partner in the deal, had agreed to finance almost two hundred million dollars of the Mi’kmaq’s loan, at a ten-per-cent interest rate. It was a tremendous amount of debt, and the concern was that, in the long run, Premium would benefit the most. “It’s a big gamble,” Williams said. “The most cynical view is we are now in a new world of neocolonialism where First Nations are being sold beans and trinkets for their access to resources.”

Terrance Paul, the chief and C.E.O. of Membertou First Nation and the principal architect of the Clearwater deal, lives on the east coast of Cape Breton, about seven hours from Saulnierville. He has a warm smile that can quickly drop into a hard expression, and a low, gravelly voice. At seventy-two, Paul—or Chief Terry, as he is widely known—is considered by many to be the most powerful chief in Atlantic Canada. He was a long-standing proponent of treaty fisheries, and had supported the Sipekne’katik during the outbreaks of violence on the French Shore. When he found out that his group had closed the deal to purchase Clearwater, he wept with joy. “I put our people in a much better position in the game of business—making sure that we play to win,” he told me.

When Paul was five, he was sent to a residential school near the Sipekne’katik reserve, on the rolling terrain north of Halifax. At the time, the government was sending Indigenous children to these schools to assimilate them into Canadian society, and abuse was widespread. A former student later wrote that classmates had been locked in closets and tied to chairs for days. “What I went through was an experimental camp that the government put together in order to get the Indian out of us,” Paul told me.

In the summer, he lived with his grandmother, who occasionally worked as a housekeeper. The Membertou nation had been forced inland when she was a child; by the time Paul was born, the people were largely severed from their fishing traditions, and unemployment was widespread. To bring in additional money, Paul and his family made wooden crafts to sell and picked blueberries. “At least you got the love, which was missing at the school,” he said. “But there were still real difficult times on the reserve because of the poverty.”

In the seventies, when Paul was in his early twenties, he found work in Boston, where he discovered the teachings of Phillip Martin, the chief of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. Martin, one of the leading voices in the mid-century movement for tribal self-determination, had led an economic resurgence on his reservation by welcoming companies and opening casinos. The tribe’s employment levels and life expectancy shot up. Inspired, Paul returned to Cape Breton, where he was elected chief, in 1984, at the age of thirty-three. In his early years at the head of Membertou, the nation’s financial situation was dismal; today, its total annual revenue, which includes fishing, gaming, and real-estate projects, is over sixty-two million dollars. The success has been communal: some of the profits go to investment in future economic development, and the rest goes to social programming, housing, education, and dividends received by individual nation members.

Chief Paul has spent decades prying open various parts of the fishing industry to further establish Mi’kmaw business. In the nineties, he encouraged a Membertou band member named Donald Marshall, Jr., to engage in the act of civil disobedience—fishing eels outside the regulated season—that ultimately led to the Supreme Court’s decision to affirm the Mi’kmaq’s hunting and fishing rights. Paul then set out to cultivate a relationship with Risley, Clearwater’s president. “We can’t continue to be looked at like we’re supposed to be living in wigwams and going to spear whenever we need it,” Paul said, recalling his thinking. “It’s a different world now. We’ve been part of this world. We have been left out of the economic pie for years and years and years.” He added, “We want our share.”

The inshore fishermen’s criticism of the Mi’kmaq’s recent business—from its alliance with Clearwater to the Sipekne’katik’s treaty fishery—was rooted in a long-standing fear of displacement. Many inshore lobster captains had been alive in the nineties, when, after corporations took control of the cod industry, it collapsed from overfishing, resulting in the largest instance of layoffs in the history of the country. But, despite Paul’s aggressive business ethos, he insisted that his band’s emphasis on communal well-being precluded the sort of individualism that drove such destruction. In many Mi’kmaw communities, people could be ostracized for exploiting the environment for personal gain. “The Mi’kmaq always believed that the collective should benefit,” Dan Christmas, a former Canadian senator from Membertou, told me. (Of the inshore fishermen, he said, “All they want to do is make individual wealth.”) In the future, Paul hoped to create a single set of conservation rules for all Mi’kmaw fishermen and nations, to prevent corporate—and grassroots—excesses. “We’re not accommodating Western culture,” he said. “We’re investing, I feel, in our traditions of fishing, but in the modern way.”

It is expected that it will take many years—perhaps decades—for the Mi’kmaw coalition to pay off its debt from the Clearwater deal. But the power that it brought was immediate. (Earlier this year, the coalition refinanced its loan, substantially lowering its interest payments.) Joe Kalt, the director of the Harvard-Kennedy School project on Indigenous governance and development, told me that, in the contemporary world of Indigenous politics, the key to economic development was the dull building of the capacity to run everything. “That’s different than pounding the table and saying, ‘Give me the resources from an old treaty,’ ” he said. “They’re saying, ‘Give me the rights in an old treaty, and we’ll take care of everything else.’ ”

On a harsh September night, during the third year of the Sipekne’katik treaty fishery, an old boat motored away from the Saulnierville wharf through thick mist and rain. It was captained by Keet Lipay, an amiable fisherman with close-cropped white hair and an occasional limp. Lipay, who is forty-nine, is a member of Elsipogtog First Nation, but he is married to a Sipekne’katik woman, and he has allied himself with the nation’s treaty fishery. In an effort to prevent D.F.O. officers from confiscating his traps, he eschewed buoys, and instead used a clawlike device to drag his traps up from the seafloor. Like other Mi’kmaq on the water, Lipay had his radio and running lights turned off, so that D.F.O. officers could not track him. (The D.F.O. denies that it can track boats by radio.) Since his boat did not have radar, he drove slowly, to avoid his friends’ vessels. He used just his fog lights, which offered about fifteen feet of visibility, and leaned his head out the wheelhouse as he steered. Still, he was cheerful. “It’s a good night for cover,” he said.

By some metrics, the Sipekne’katik’s radicalism had been a political success. The band’s loudest critics—the white fishermen—had their reputation badly damaged by the incidents of arson and violence, and, amid international outrage, the D.F.O. had reached new agreements with other First Nations about their treaty fisheries. Yet the Sipekne’katik refused to negotiate with the D.F.O., or to allow outside oversight of its treaty fishery, arguing that doing so would compromise their sovereignty.

The band declined to release catch figures, but maintained that its fishermen only brought in a tiny amount of lobster compared with the harvest of the commercial season. But many people believed that this claim was an understatement, and suggested that the band’s focus on rights could mask a desperate greed. Kerry Prosper, an elder and council member from Paq’tnkek First Nation who is revered for his understanding of netukulimk, the Mi’kmaw concept of balance, said that avarice was endangering all corners of the fisheries, from white to Indigenous: “A right is only good as long as there’s a resource. We just can’t see that right now. Some people see money being made.”

Chief Paul’s economic vision rests on the conviction that Indigenous values will guide the Mi’kmaq’s newfound power in the lobster industry. (Clearwater has hired a director of Indigenous relations and launched a program to train Mi’kmaq to work throughout the company, including on its offshore boats.) But some see the Sipekne’katik’s behavior as a threat to consensus among Mi’kmaw bands. By the most recent lobster season, last fall, Chief Sack had lost his reëlection as Chief, and some Indigenous leaders had openly criticized the Sipekne’katik—a rarity in the tight-knit Mi’kmaw world. “The whole purpose of the treaty was peace and friendship,” Dan Christmas, the former senator, said. “So, if you go ahead and implement your right in hostility, you’re violating the treaty.”

Last spring, Kerry Prosper and other Mi’kmaw elders voiced similar concerns about the exploitation of another species: hordes of people were lining up on the province’s rivers to fish for elvers—juvenile migrating eels, a delicacy in Japan—which were selling for about two thousand dollars per pound. A fisherman was shot in Meteghan, and, citing concerns about safety and poaching, the D.F.O. shut the fishery down. But James Nevin, the Sipekne’katik fisherman, still went out for elvers. “It’s fast money,” he said. On a philosophical level, he agreed with the elders: “You come in, you fuckin’ reap the benefits, and then, once it’s gone, that’s it. You feel pretty shitty.” But, with the money he made, he was able to buy a new boat for the lobster season.

When I first met Nevin, a few years ago, we went out lobstering with his brother-in-law, a lobster captain named Robert Sack, on Saint Mary’s Bay. The water appeared calm, a smooth plane reaching into the night. But powerful currents churned beneath us. The Bay of Fundy has the strongest tides on Earth, and, for lobstermen, getting caught in a rope and being pulled overboard can be fatal. A few years ago, Nevin was hauled overboard, but Sack rescued him. “When I was down there,” he said, “it was the quietest place I’ve ever been.”

Not far away, tides pulsed up the Shubenacadie River, which carves inland for twenty miles to the Sipekne’katik reserve. Near the reserve’s eastern end, where the river curves by an old plastics factory, is the site of the former residential school that Chief Paul attended as a boy. At least sixteen children died at the institution, and many others remain unaccounted for. The riverbank was marked by memorials: flowers, moccasins, a dancing figure made from blue lobster rope. Nevin didn’t think the bodies of the missing children would be found. “My grandmother, she was ninety-three years old when she passed away,” he said. “She said, ‘I believe they threw them in the river.’ ” He shoved another trap into the water; its rope hissed downward. Sack gazed out at the water. “Imagine what our ancestors went through. There used to be encampments just around this bay right here,” he said. “For us to give up now—they’d be rolling over in their fucking mass grave.” ♦

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