A retired NDP MLA and cabinet minister says he’s hoping to run for the Progressive Conservatives in the next Nova Scotia election because his former party suggested the province’s coastal communities are racist.
But the federal and provincial NDP say their ex-colleague isn’t acknowledging the centrality of racism in the moderate livelihood lobster dispute.
“If you come down here and talk to the people, that’s the first thing they’ll bring up — how that party basically isolated this community,” Sterling Belliveau said about remarks made by federal New Democrats during an Oct. 19, 2020 emergency debate in the House of Commons.
Belliveau took particular exception to comments made by NDP MP Niki Ashton during an exchange with Conservative MP Chris d’Entremont, who represents the Nova Scotia riding that saw a wave of sometimes violent protests that resulted in dozens of arrests.
“Will the member not agree that the first step to ending racially motivated violence is to call out the racism that is driving it and to defend the Indigenous community that is the target of this violence?” Ashton asked.
Belliveau, who spoke at several protests and is himself a retired lobster fisherman, wrote Ashton the following day.
“It is important to understand that this is not a racist issue,” he said via email. “It is instead a disagreement over the interpretation of the Marshall decision of 1999.”
He demanded a retraction and apology from both Ashton and federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh. And he invited them to visit Nova Scotia’s coastal communities to better understand the issue from the perspective of non-Indigenous commercial fishermen.
“Without this understanding, without retracting the accusation of being racist, the NDP Party will lose any & all support of these communities & this Province in general,” he wrote.
In a written statement to the Sidebar, the federal NDP stood its ground on the matter.
“The attacks we witnessed last year on the Mi’kmaw were clearly racially motivated,” it said. “The burning down and destruction of businesses that worked with the Mi’kmaw were appalling and the NDP condemns those acts of violence.”
“And it’s clear that the lack of protection by police was racially motivated,” the statement continued. “We continue to call on the Liberals to act on this matter and to uphold the treaty rights of the Mi’kmaw.”
Belliveau, who did not seek re-election in 2017 after 11 years in the provincial legislature, said he was happily retired from politics before the lobster dispute erupted.
“Around late September, I started getting calls from fishermen,” he said. ”The fishermen and the general public were getting frustrated because nobody was defending them.”
While he regrets the vandalism and violence that erupted at some of the protests, Belliveau claims these acts stemmed, not from racism, but from economic interest, concern for the health of lobster stocks, and negligence by the federal government.
“This is not a racist community,” he said.
Belliveau acknowledges Indigenous fishing rights. “They have a right, which I recognize, and the Supreme Court recognizes,” he said.
But he also said those rights should be exercised within established fishing seasons and, in keeping with his interpretation of the Marshall decisions, in waters that are “adjacent” to First Nations communities.
Belliveau said the “hurtful” comments from the federal NDP, along with a lack of support from the Nova Scotia NDP, caused him to seek a new political home.
“I didn’t get any response other than (Nova Scotia NDP leader Gary Burrill) calling me saying, ‘Sterling, I think you misunderstood what they were trying to say.’ And I said, ‘No, Gary, don’t … They were basically calling these communities racist.’”
“That’s where we severed our ties,” Belliveau said.
Like their federal counterparts, the provincial New Democrats stood by their position on the dispute.
“Where Sterling Belliveau and I don’t see eye to eye on this is that, in his view, as I understand it, the consideration of racism has no legitimate place in the conversation about the moderate livelihood fishery,” Burrill wrote in a statement to the Sidebar.
“Whereas, as I see it, there is no viable path towards the resolution of the moderate livelihood issue that does not include a balanced weighing of this dimension of the question.”
A week after a Dec. 2 appearance
at the federal fisheries committee, Belliveau said he began receiving encouragement to seek the Progressive Conservative nomination in Shelburne.
“I thought it over, and around Christmas time, I said I’d put my name forward,” he said. “It was the people, the fishing community and the business community, that asked me to step forward. And I’m just following their wishes.”