Canada

Troubled Waters

Native lobster fishermen in Atlantic Canada and the federal government continue to clash

Deborah Nobes August 28 2000
Canada

Troubled Waters

Native lobster fishermen in Atlantic Canada and the federal government continue to clash

Deborah Nobes August 28 2000

Troubled Waters

Canada

Native lobster fishermen in Atlantic Canada and the federal government continue to clash

Deborah Nobes

Miramichi Bay spreads wide and blue and glistening along the length of Burnt Church First Nation. The water dominates the landscape here, its dancing waves visible from nearly every window on the reserve. It is tantalizing and hypnotic, and it holds the impoverished New Brunswick community’s dreams for economic self-sufficiency and political self-determination within its depths. The bay is also a symbol of hope for aboriginal people across Canada, many of whom are cheering from the sidelines as a high-stakes ocean battle unfolds between the federal government and a ragged group of Mi’kmaq

Indians who believe they have a 240-year-old treaty right to regulate their own lobster fishery. “We have to start taking the initiative on this and fight for the rights of the people,” says James Ward, a Burnt Church native and former U.S. army sergeant. “Instead of trying to maintain what little scraps we have, we must begin taking things back for our people.”

The broad implications of that struggle were obvious as Assembly of First Nations National Chief Matthew Coon Come toured the fishing grounds last week to give his blessing to the Burnt Church activists. In a news conference held on the shores of the bay, he also condemned federal Fisheries Minister Herb Dhaliwal for refusing to negotiate with the Burnt Church natives on their own terms. “The First Nations of this country cannot survive on just government handouts,” said Coon Come. “If we want to deal with the poverty and the unemployment right across this country, the federal government will have to deal with sharing the wealth of this land.” Late in the week, there were initial signs of conciliation when the two sides finally agreed to meet.

Coon Comes visit bolstered the community’s resolve after a rough week of confrontations on the water. Late on Aug. 12, 15 department of fisheries and oceans vessels carrying 60 armed officers descended on the bay, seizing 742 native traps and ordering the native fishermen back to shore. In the words of DFO spokesman André-Marc Lanteigne, most of the gear “was trashed,” meaning officers cut the ropes and left the wooden traps to rot on the ocean floor. The officers blasted a few Mi’kmaq fishermen with pepper spray and arrested four others, charging them with obstructing officers in the line of duty, and seized a native-owned boat. The DFO officers took a break, returning a few hours later to clean up what was left, seizing or leaving inoperable the 72 remaining native-owned traps. Burnt Church residents responded by barricading a 15-km stretch of the main highway on the outskirts of the reserve near Neguac, on New Brunswick’s northeast coast.

Two days later, the DFO officers returned at dawn. This time, the Burnt Church fishermen were buttressed by four speedboats and seven native fisheries rangers from the Listiguj First Nation just across the border in Quebec. Amateur video taken by a bystander on shore shows a ranger boat colliding with a DFO vessel. The natives say they were deliberately rammed, while federal officials claim the smaller boat was warned to get out of the way but refused. Both Dhaliwal and Prime Minister Jean Chrétien supported the actions of the DFO officers, saying it is the responsibility of the government to enforce federal fishing rules. “We have to ensure that we have the rule of law and not anarchy and confrontation,” Dhaliwal said.

The dispute over lobster has been simmering since last September, when the Supreme Court of Canada ruled Mi’kmaq and Maliseet peoples have a treaty right to “make a moderate livelihood” year-round from hunting and fishing. East Coast natives said that gave them unfettered access to the region’s natural resources, and many quickly took to the water to begin fishing. That angered non-native lobstermen, who are legally limited to a November-to-June harvesting season and who worried about the effect on their half-billion-dollar-a-year industry. In Burnt Church and on Nova Scotia’s South Shore, that anger quickly turned to violence on both sides. Property belonging to natives and non-natives was damaged, and groups representing non-native fishermen demanded Dhaliwal’s resignation.

Last November, in a rare move, the Supreme Court issued a clarification to its ruling, saying treaty rights did not mean a fishing and hunting free-for-all, and that the government still had the right to regulate the industry. Ottawa, meanwhile, appointed negotiator James MacKenzie to meet with native communities. The chief federal representative con-

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‘The First Nations cannot survive on just government handouts. The federal government will have to deal with sharing the wealth of this land.’

vinced 29 of 34 Maritime and Quebec-based native bands to sign one-year agreements, worth several million dollars each, that provided natives with commercial licences, boats and gear, training and infrastructure money. In return, they must abide by Ottawa’s rules governing the fishery, including season guidelines, size of catch and regulations on traps and nets.

For Burnt Church, an agreement would have meant 17 commercial licences with 5,100 traps, a share of the lucrative snow-crab fishery, five fully equipped fishing boats, and money for training and a new wharf. But the band refused the $3.3-million package, and instead adopted its own management plan, saying that its fishery was outside the federal government’s jurisdiction. Natives fish with band-issued tags on their traps instead of DFO tags, and follow conservation rules written by their own people.

So far, their fishery has been mainly symbolic. Burnt Church natives fish in small open dories, carrying fewer than half a dozen traps on each trip from shore. And federal fisheries officers have seized or made inoperable virtually every native trap set in Miramichi Bay since the Mi’kmaq’s fall season opened on Aug. 10. Many native fishermen say they are afraid to set their traps at all, fearing they will lose their investment in another DFO crackdown.

Late last week, there were some small signs of compromise. As Burnt Church community members prepared for a weekend powwow celebration, federal fisheries vessels stayed away from the area. And for the first time, the two sides met briefly. No details were released, but federal negotiator MacKenzie described the meeting with Burnt Church native leaders as “a co-operative effort.” He added: “We have established a way of proceeding to the next stage of actually sitting down and discussing the details of where we go.” The native leaders were pleased enough with the progress that Burnt Church ChiefWilbur Dedam ordered the removal of the highway blockade.

Some members of the Burnt Church community found encouragement in the initial talk. They hoped it meant Ottawa and the DFO were finally prepared to at least consider the band’s management plan. “We’re very optimistic that they will look at what we’ve put on the table and respect our wishes,” said teacher Karen Somerville. “We really need a change in atmosphere here on the reserve.” And calm waters on Miramichi Bay. ESI