Lake Winnipeg in a different light: Re-imagining environmental politics in a small-scale Canadian inland fishery

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Palsson, Solmundur
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Research for this thesis was carried out between 2016 and 2020, a period which was exceptionally politically and ecologically volatile for the small-scale commercial fishery on Lake Winnipeg. Politically, the Province of Manitoba initiated major policy changes, including quota buy-backs and the rescinding of provincial endorsement of the Freshwater Fish Marketing Act. Ecologically, a major flood in 2011 and detrimental impacts following from the consequent construction of the emergency channel between Lake Manitoba and Lake Winnipeg had a major impact on the lake’s habitat and fisheries. In hindsight, the period was a unique opportunity to witness the negotiation of values and the shape of governance among Lake Winnipeg’s fishers and between them and government representatives of the Province of Manitoba. The research included interviews with over 40 fishers and other Lake Winnipeg stakeholders and hundreds of informal conversations with commercial fishers from Fisher River Cree Nation, Gimli, Riverton, and Winnipeg. I engaged in participant observation in meetings between commercial fishers and the province of Manitoba and Freshwater Fisher Marketing Corporation, and in-depth analysis of Hansard records from the House of Commons and the Manitoba Legislative Assembly. I conclude that: (1) analytical tools such as Sen’s capabilities approach and Interactive Governance (IG) Theory are insufficient alone to analyze and understand the complexity of critical debates and negotiations in fisheries and environmental governance. Both approaches leave limited space for critical environmental politics since both approaches still rely heavily on the division between society and Nature. Additionally, both approaches are insufficiently sensitive of disparities of power and do not pay enough attention to arbitrary power of ministers who can circumvent critical debates with fishers in the determination of policies. (2) Recent years on Lake Winnipeg illustrate a serious deficit in democratic decision-making in Manitoba. The space for fishers to disseminate their knowledge is highly circumscribed and their views on fisheries and the environment as a whole were ignored. Decisions were made without proper consultation, which undermined communities’ and fishers’ ability to protect their livelihoods. These, instead, were sacrificed for what the Province of Manitoba deemed to be a sustainable fishery or broader provincial interests. Overall, I argue that decision-making processes need to be more power-sensitive and receptive to fishers’ knowledge. The only way to do this is to allow fishers to participate from the beginning, when facts are created by scientists and bureaucrats. Instead of discussing ethical issues after facts are created, they need to be discussed simultaneously. Before such an idea can be realized, hierarchical politics need to be abandoned in favor of more decentralized politics. This more truly democratic approach might be comparatively difficult and messy from a governance point of view, but would be more inclusive, legitimate, and, likely, effective in matching the interests of the fishers of Manitoba with those of the province as a whole.
Lake Winnipeg, Co-management, Power, Democracy, Well-being, Freedom, Co production of Nature, Traditional ecological knowledge, Sustainability