Why 'moderate livelihood' may never mean anything

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Why 'moderate livelihood' may never mean anything

by jonkle

On September 17, 2020 a Mik’maw community in Nova Scotia launched its own moderate livelihood lobster fishery, as is their proven treaty right under R v Marshall (1999). The fishery launched outside of the typical Nova Scotian lobster season, which starts on the last Monday of November, and under the excuse of conservation Nova Scotian lobster fishers blockaded Mik’maw boats, stole their traps and gear, and threatened anyone who was suspected of buying their lobster by sending mobs to their houses, and most recently set a Mik’maw boat on fire. Gas stations also refused to service Mik’maw customers. The Mik’maw Chiefs declared a state of emergency.

For reference, there are 985 licensed lobster vessels in Nova Scotia, each of which are limited to 375 – 400 traps, making a conservative total of 369,375 lobster traps. The Mik’maw fishery has 10 licensed vessels using 50 traps each for a total of 500. These numbers reveal the argument about conservation to have just been another mask hiding Canadians’ racism towards Indigenous people.

The situation between Mik’maw and Nova Scotian fishers has been covered by far better journalists than myself. It is a clear case of anti-Indigenous racism thinly veiled by cries of conservation. My own takes on these events would be pretty redundant.

I’m instead going to look at why this situation happened now, 21 years after R v Marshall. The reason the moderate livelihood fishery launched this year, rather than in 1999 or 2000 or any other interim year, is that the Mik’maq were trying to come to an agreement with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans on the definition of a “moderate livelihood.” The DFO was hesitant to do so after the collapse of the codfish industry and tried multiple roundabout approaches, like establishing economic development, training and lending programs in Mi’kmaw communities. But those programs fizzled out and “moderate livelihood” remained undefined.

I think this becomes a bit clearer when we look closer at R v Marshall. Alongside the phrase “moderate livelihood”, a key line is the clarification that, whatever moderate livelihood meant, it didn’t mean “an open-ended accumulation of wealth.”

Taken on its own there’s nothing wrong with the phrase. A moderate livelihood that does not pursue an open-ended accumulation of wealth actually sounds pretty good. Why, then, would the DFO struggle to define the term?

It’s my own thinking that the DFO was and is reluctant to define “moderate livelihood” because any definition they make will exist in contrast with the average Canadian’s livelihood. If Indigenous people are living moderately, then how are Canadians living if not excessively? What is the Canadian approach to the accumulation of wealth if not open-ended? By defining the conditions of Indigenous livelihood, the DFO will in turn define the conditions of Canadian livelihood, and in that definition reveal the systemic inequalities the government makes such an effort to pretend don’t exist.

So, when looking at the goings-on in Nova Scotia, I don’t expect to see a clear and concrete definition of “moderate livelihood” anytime soon. At best I’d predict an ambiguous, liberal definition of moderation that focuses on an individualized moral obligation not to take too much but avoids any comparison to the “middle class.” Otherwise, a concrete definition of “moderate livelihood” will force any Canadians aware of it to look at their own livelihoods and find in the contrasts the truth about our horribly racist and unfair relationship with Indigenous people.


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