Under the sway of a militant arm, Burnt Church refuses to give in to Ottawa
Under the sway of a militant arm, Burnt Church refuses to give in to Ottawa
James Ward believes in the Way of
the Warrior. He lives according to a code that blends the precepts of the Japanese samurai with American military philosophy and the traditional ways of his Mi’kmaq people. “Honour,” he says, “is having the moral strength to do what is
just at all times, regardless of the consequences.” That creed helped make him a sergeant in the U.S. army. Trying to live up to his rigid convictions, he believes, also subconsciously drove him to try to commit suicide when he shot himself in the head in 1992 as his marriage collapsed and his military career seemed in shambles. But more than anything, that personal code explains why Ward, who is now blind in his right eye after the self-inflicted pistol wound, was at his post in Burnt Church, N.B., last week—hair buzzed into a Mohawk plume, powerful body encased in army fatigues—waiting for department of fisheries and oceans officers to arrive.
Ward, who holds no elected band position, has emerged as the leader of Burnt Church’s militant arm. That makes the 31 -year-old a big reason his people refuse to bend to Ottawa’s will in the tense standoff over native lobster fishing in Miramichi Bay. For a brief moment last week, it looked as though the conflict was over. But that was before a deal that federal mediator Bob Rae, a former NDP premier of Ontario, had brokered collapsed in confusion, anger, disappointment—and gunfire. Wilbur Dedam, the Burnt Church chief, insisted his people were willing to compromise and that Ottawa has been unbending since mediation began on
Sept. 12. But the federal government had run out of patience. With non-native fishermen threatening to take justice into their own hands, on Sept. 21, federal Fisheries Minister Herb Dhaliwal gave natives 24 hours to pull their lobster traps—which he considers illegal—or see the RCMP and DFO swoop down and seize them. “The time has come when I can no longer accept promises in place of action,” Dhaliwal said. “I cannot negotiate at the expense of conservation, of fairness or of social order.”
The natives refused to blink. Fisheries officers actually struck ahead of the deadline, pulling more than 100 traps be-
\ fore dawn the next morning. And the RCMP reported that I a non-native fishing boat was hit by a bullet fired from another vessel sometime in the early-morning hours on Friday. (No one was hurt.) On Saturday, three non-natives were arrested after shots were fired in the waters off the reserve just I after 2 a.m. The Mounties detained the three men as they ! docked in nearby Neguac an hour later, confiscating two rii fles and a shotgun. In Vancouver, natives occupied Dhaliwal s I constituency office, vowing to stay until the minister resigns.
Those incidents came despite pleas from leaders on both J sides to stick to nonviolent means of protest. Maurice Theriault, a spokesman for the Maritime Fishermans Union, said the three men were acting on their own. Meanwhile, band leaders urged their members to stay onshore to pray, chant and burn sweetgrass rather than risk confrontation on the waters. And on Saturday, DFO officials removed 800 traps without incident.
There may be some residents willing, for the sake of peace, to surrender a right they feel the Supreme Court of Canada confirmed a year ago. But they were not among the Warriors—from Burnt Church and reserves throughout OnI tario, Quebec, Manitoba and British Columbia—patrolling «S the shoreline. “I’ll die to protect what is rightfully ours,” said ■ Shane Francis, a 19-year-old Grade 12 student who was I aboard a native fishing boat when it collided with a DFO I vessel last month.
hi Attitudes have hardened in Burnt Church. The reserve *» drew its line in the sand after the September, 1999, Supreme § Court ruling in the Donald Marshall case that eastern Canadian Mi’kmaqs and Maliseets could earn a “moderate livelihood” from hunting, fishing and gathering. When they dropped their traps, the natives - intended to prove a point, and to
(bring a measure of prosperity to the dirt-poor reserve. But a year of dispute with Ottawa and confrontation with non-native fisher_ men has made some members of t the band unwilling to deal. “Each ¡1 time a boat is rammed or so mell body gets arrested, our determina| tion to fight on just grows,” says |J Brian Bartiboque, a band council* lor, who has repeatedly had his traps cut by fisheries officers.
And throughout the standoff,
Ward, with his militant views and in-your-face style, has been Ottawa’s worst nightmare. He has been everywhere: masterminding the band’s strategy for setting traps and eluding federal officers, heading up security, and emerging as the band’s media spokesman. The father of four—who considers his
nationality Mi’kmaq even though he holds American citizenship—has been Maced, arrested and, he says, rammed by a DFO Zodiac while lowering traps into the water.
Truth is, Ward has always been drawn to the combat field. He was born in Worcester, Mass., but spent most of his early years shuttling between his father’s home there and Burnt Church, his mother’s birthplace, where he lived with his sister. After high school, he joined the U.S. army, and five years later was heading a four-man team specially trained to drop behind enemy lines and gather intelligence. Then, he says, his wife accused him of abusing her. When she threatened to leave with their two children, something snapped. “I had the equivalent of a blackout, I don’t remember exactly what happened,” he recalled. “Between the anger and the dishonour, that is when I picked up my pistol, said to her, ‘Here it is,’ and put it to my head and pulled the trigger.”
Ward, who nearly died in the ambulance, was in hospital for 10 weeks recuperating, and the resulting loss of vision ended his military career. So he headed to Fredericton where he enrolled in the University of New Brunswick, completing a bachelor of arts degree in 1998. He wrote a thesis on aboriginal self-determination reflecting his belief that natives would not be treated fairly in Canada until they could negotiate with Ottawa on a nation-to-nation basis.
His baptism in the native-rights wars came that same year when native loggers in New Brunswick defiantly cut down trees to protest a court ruling that they had no right to log on native lands. Ward acted as security adviser for Noah Augustine, an emerging aboriginal leader, who was found not guilty of murder in a high-profile trial last year—and who last week warned the Burnt Church band against violent confrontation.
When the Burnt Church conflict arose, Ward was ready, in his words “to fill the leadership vacuum.” But he is not the only person adhering to the Warrior’s code. Reasons to feel proud have always been in short supply in Burnt Church, where the unemployment rate reaches 90 per cent and the small cemetery is filled with the graves of the young who fell victim to drugs, alcohol and suicide.“Now, children see their fathers going out to fight for their rights and the rights of future generations, and everybody feels happy,” says Leo Bartibogue, a band drug counsellor who has been fishing for lobster since the Marshall decision a year ago. “It is empowering.” And that can inspire a person to stand against even the most overwhelming odds, dl
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