HALIFAX -- Dalhousie's faculty association says the university's president may have violated academic freedom after he emailed teachers, staff and students to warn them against making negative comments about an Indigenous-run fishery.

The president's letter, dated Sept. 23, came after weeks of tension between Indigenous and non-Indigenous fishers over the right of the Sipekne'katik First Nation to fish and sell lobster during the off-season in southwestern Nova Scotia.

"Negative comments against the Indigenous community exercising their right to a livelihood are not reflective of Dalhousie's core values," reads the email, signed by Dalhousie president Deep Saini and vice-provost Theresa Rajack-Talley.

"This includes any disparaging comments by any Dalhousie community member(s)."

Faculty association president David Westwood said Wednesday his organization is looking into whether the email is a "violation of academic freedom." He declined to make further comments.

David Robinson, the executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, says the letter comes off as "ambiguous at best."

"It tended to conflate things that might be legitimately criticism with things that might be harassment or discrimination that are illegal under the law," he said in an interview Wednesday. Negative comments themselves don't breach regulations and are protected by the university's principles of academic freedom of expression, he added.

Robinson said Dalhousie should consider clarifying the statements as different interpretations could leave faculty wondering if negative comments could lead to disciplinary actions. "I think they've handled this a little awkwardly."

Dalhousie spokeswoman Janet Bryson said Wednesday the president sent the email "to promote and emphasize respectful dialogue within our community in line with our values and in response to matter where unacceptable, discriminatory remarks were made."

"This was not related to academic faculty sharing their expertise. Academic freedom is a core value of Dalhousie University and we support our faculty's rights and responsibilities within this area," Bryson said in an email.

Mi'kmaq fishers have been asserting their treaty right, which was affirmed in a 1999 Supreme Court decision, to fish for a moderate livelihood.

They say non-Indigenous fishers have threatened and intimidated them for their off-season fishery. The Sipekne'katik First Nation says non-Indigenous fishers recently removed 350 Mi'kmaq lobster traps from St. Marys Bay and vandalized equipment and vessels.

Non-Indigenous fishers, however, say the Mi'kmaq should follow the licensing system established by the federal government, which prohibits lobster fishing during the off-season, which is from May to November.

Colin Sproul, president of the Bay of Fundy Inshore Fishermen's Association, said Wednesday the president's letter has driven a wedge between the commercial fishing associations and the marine science department at Dalhousie.

"Anybody ... at Dalhousie should be concentrating on science and not politics and those statements can't be viewed as anything but political statements," Sproul said in an interview.

Sproul says the off-season was created to allow the lobster stocks to replenish. But that claim has been criticized by some marine experts, who say the stocks are plentiful and the Indigenous fishery doesn't pose an ecological threat.

Fred Whoriskey, an adjunct professor in the biology department, disagrees with Sproul. A day after the president sent the email, the biology department published a statement of support for the Mi'kmaq fishers on its website.

"The Department of Biology at Dalhousie University stands in solidarity with Mi'kmaw fishers," the statement reads. "We respect the rule of law and reject the use of violence in all circumstances for the settling of disputes."

Whoriskey said the department isn't concerned about appearing biased because the statement doesn't breach the university's concerns about hateful comments toward the Indigenous community.

"We understand the university is an academic institution with academic freedom," Whoriskey said in an interview Wednesday. "So honest debate, respectful debate surrounding a variety of different issues, hopefully the university would be the place that would foster these kinds of discussion in a constructive and civil manner."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 30, 2020.

This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.