Lobster, Conflict and the Canadian Way 

3 minute read

Allister Surette has been named federal special representative with a mandate to ease tensions in the Nova Scotia lobster dispute. While the reprieve from violence, arson and racism is welcome, the underlying conflict he will need to resolve remains.

Surette will need to engage the parties in a viable conversation about the options for resolving the longer-term conflict to the waters off the east coast, something that has been lacking to date.

Donald Savoie wrote recently in the Globe and Mail of the need for a “parallel process” for bringing people around the table to work through the issues and competing interests, away from the water and the lobster. He is right.

The path forward must begin with a shared vision that provides for the livelihood of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people working within a sustainable fishery with shared rules and shared accountability.

A framework for such a shared vision already exists, forged out of earlier conflicts over natural resources in Canada’s North.

In 1974, the federal government found itself in the middle of a dispute over a proposed pipeline that would run through the Mackenzie Valley and the traditional lands of the Dene, Metis and Inuvialuit. Multinational oil companies, acting against the backdrop of the global energy crisis, clashed with Indigenous rights activists and an emerging and forceful international environmental movement.

Almost twenty years later, the conflict centred on another hydrocarbon -- diamonds. At the time, the diamond play was akin to the Klondike Gold Rush of 1896. Companies from around the world contracted every available aircraft and raced to stake large tracts of tundra and bog on the traditional land of several Indigenous groups.

Once again, the federal government found itself having to balance competing interests and the rule of law using the good governance tools at its disposal: political will; regulatory approval; a commitment that Indigenous communities should obtain a share of the benefits; and environmental protection.

A negotiated solution was reached and a new industry was created, one that followed stringent environmental standards and fulfilled its duty to consult, even before the Supreme Court clarified that duty in 1997.

Today, the Canadian North is covered by several comprehensive land claim agreements that have established a network of modern laws codifying those agreements. They give Indigenous people an equal voice in resource management decisions, royalty sharing and access to government procurement, as well as laying out clear rules around surface and subsurface resources.

Even geographic areas not covered by agreements -- such as the Deh Cho, in the heart of the Mackenzie Valley -- have protection through interim measures. And peaceful negotiations continue to this day.

Surette is equipped to solve the Nova Scotia fishery dispute by respecting the principles of Peace, Order and Good Government in the new context of reconciliation, using tools that have proven effective in previous disputes.

It will take time, effort and compromise on all sides. Interim measures could lower the temperature, create good will and allow sustainable harvesting to continue while the parameters of a legally binding agreement are negotiated.

Those interested in resolving the Nova Scotia lobster dispute can take a page out of the Northern playbook.


By Stephen M. Van Dine, Senior Vice-President, Public Governance

Born in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, Stephen spent his formative teen-age years finishing High School at Sir John Franklin Territorial High school in the Northwest Territories. He also began his career as a community planner with the City of Yellowknife and later with the Government of the Northwest Territories, Department of Municipal and Community Affairs. In 1997, he began working at Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, in the Yellowknife Regional Office and transferred to the National Capital Region in 2002. Since then, Stephen has led a number of program, policy and legislative sustainable development initiatives with respect to northern governance, the arctic, the Devolution of Land and Resource Management Responsibilities in the Northwest Territories, the implementation and modification to the Nutrition North Canada program, co-drafting the Inuit Nunangat Declaration, overseeing the construction of the Canadian High Arctic Research Station, as well as supporting the legislation to establish of Polar Knowledge Canada. More recently, Stephen has been working on a long-term asset sustainability strategy for Parks Canada Agency along with overseeing critical corporate functions with respect to Information Technology, Cabinet and Regulatory Business, Asset Management and Security.

Stephen has a degree in Urban and Regional Planning from Ryerson University and a Masters in Public Administration from Queen’s University. Stephen recently completed an Executive Certificate in Energy and the Environment from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Stephen is married and has two children with his wife Marie.

About the author

Institute on Governance

Institute on Governance

Founded in 1990, the Institute on Governance (IOG) is an independent, Canada-based, not-for-profit public interest institution with its head office in Ottawa and an office in Toronto. Our mission is ‘advancing better governance in the public interest,’ which we accomplish by exploring, developing and promoting the principles, standards and practices which underlie good governance in the public sphere, both in Canada and abroad.

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