CANADA

Big guns for little fishes

David Thomas June 29 1981
CANADA

Big guns for little fishes

David Thomas June 29 1981

Big guns for little fishes

Quebec

David Thomas

The midnight mizzle dissolved the searchlight’s narrow beam only a few metres ahead of the Micmac’s outboard as it swept the chill estuary. Squinting against the fine droplets, Frank Martin spent the first half-hour of a morning last week stalking the orange floats supporting his salmon net in the dark waters separating Quebec and New Brunswick where the Restigouche River joins the Baie des Chaleurs. The Indian fisherman’s patience was punc-

tuated by crisp spits of tobacco juice until, finally, the net was spotted by his young son Dean. Lifted bit by bit as Martin pulled his boat along its 200metre length, the net revealed tidal detritus and gaping holes where it had been run over by other boats. Not until near the net’s end did the water flash silver with the thrashing of a thick salmon trapped by the gills. Back on the gravel beach, Martin’s 10-pounder joined four bigger fish reflecting the light of a driftwood fire. That was the combined catch of the dozen men huddled about the blaze after working the nocturnal tide from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. On the black market—for these fish were, in the eyes of provincial law, poached— the night’s catch was worth about $270.

It was to smash this fishery, worth about $2,000 annually for each of the 150 Micmac fishermen, that the Quebec government descended with paramili-

tary might at high tide June 11 and again last Saturday even as Indian chiefs from across Canada were gathered there to protest against the first invasion. From the land, sea and air, 275 Quebec riot police in battle gear had invaded the Micmac’s Restigouche reserve while a flotilla of 35 boats carrying 100 Quebec game wardens sped from the New Brunswick shore to seize nets from the water, the beach and even backyards. With neither name tags nor badges to identify them, the gunand club-wielding cops blocked a busload of schoolchildren from returning home and, affirmed Marc Ouellette, a white, French-speaking journalist, made unprovoked assaults on bystanders in an apparent attempt to rouse the Indians to retaliatory violence, arresting some who had merely run from their charge. Gloria Dedam was, according to witnesses, first pushed, then hit with a riot stick as she tried to escort home her

five-year-old son. Ouellette, editor of Campbellton, N.B.’s, weekly VAviron, said he saw “hatred” in the eyes of some of the policemen. “They thought they were on the beaches of Normandy.”

Premier René Lévesque personally, authorized the police raid which, for more than three hours, suspended the legal authority of the Micmac band council and denied normal liberty of circulation to reserve residents—an action whose legality was immediately challenged by the province’s human rights commission. Lévesque’s special secretary for native affairs, Eric Gourdeau, told Maclean’s last week that the Indians had sworn to defend their nets and that the massive police assault was in response to “a sort of apprehended insurrection”—the same reason given by Pierre Trudeau in 1970 for the imposition of martial law during Quebec’s October Crisis.

Eleven arrests for obstruction of po-

lice were made and 110 nets seized because the Micmac fish without a provincial permit and have refused to accept a government quota system, which would restrict fishing to three days a week. Quebec, according to Gourdeau, does not recognize the Micmac’s right to land, game or fish beyond the special treatment the government has traditionally accorded them: “They have a strict right to privileges.” He said the suspension of liberty during the fourhour raid troubled him personally but that it had to be balanced against the need to enforce provincial law, and then he added: “Nobody died.” The Indians refuse to admit Quebec jurisdiction, arguing that they have an aboriginal and legal right under the Royal Proclamation of 1763 to fish for salmon.

By early last week, new nets had been set at the urging of Restigouche chief Alphonse Metallic, who invited 50 chiefs gathered at the National Indian Brotherhood’s executive council session in Victoria to adjourn to Restigouche. The group flew in by chartered jet on Thursday and issued a condemnation of the raid and plotted legal action against Quebec. The province responded with the Saturday raid. Although police stayed off the reserve this time and there were no arrests, waterborne wardens seized all the nets.

Enraged, the Indians were restoring the nets yet again over the weekend, and muttering darkly about stockpiling weapons on the reserve. Saturday’s raid also forced Ottawa off the fence. Indian Affairs Minister John Munro flew to the reserve later in the day to confer with the angry natives and to help draft a reserve bylaw, which he says will take precedence over provincial fishing regulations.

While Quebec claims its prime concern is conservation of the salmon, the Micmac believe the government wants most of all to assert its jurisdiction in anticipation of eventual separation. They also accuse the province of wanting to protect the sport of wealthy anglers at the expense of native livelihoods. The weight of evidence appears to support the Indians: the raid was ordered not by the agriculture department responsible for commercial fisheries but by Tourism, Hunting and Fishing Minister Lucien Lessard—not one of the cabinet’s bright lights. He often appears tired and uncertain and has been ridiculed by political opponents for his difficulty in expressing himself.

Both the Micmac and Quebec’s native affairs secretary, Gourdeau, say they want to develop the Restigouche commercial salmon fishery as an Indian monopoly, with smokehouses and retail outlets that would earn more than the $3-per-pound black-market price. But

the intervention of hundreds of armed men has further poisoned relations. Lamented fisherman Frank Martin: “When my boy heard the riot squad might be coming back, he got out my two high-powered hunting rifles and ran through the house looking for shells. And he’s 10 years old.”

With files from Judith Lacroix.