Canada

Trouble at Sea

John DeMont May 22 2000
Canada

Trouble at Sea

John DeMont May 22 2000

Trouble at Sea

Canada

John DeMont

Brian Bartibogue used to think being police chief on the Esgenoopetitj native reserve in Burnt Church, N.B., had its tough days. That was before he decided to become a commercial lobster fishermen. Last fall, after the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that he and other Mi’kmaqs had the right to fish year-round and without licences, he took to the water— and had all 75 traps he and friends owned cut by angry non-natives or seized by inspectors for the department of fisheries and oceans for flouting federal authority. He led native protests in the ensuing uproar.

And on May 6, the 30-year-old band councillor was back in the middle of the action, when DFO inspectors seized 10 more of his traps in the waters around Burnt Church because they lacked government-approved tags. “I’m stubborn,” he declares. “I’m not going to quit.”

For Bartibogue, the latest showdown in the waters around Burnt Church is about principle—not a few lobster pots. Ottawa says it still has the right to oversee and regulate the native lobster fishery—a position reinforced by the courts extraordinary Nov. 17 clarification of its original ruling. But Bartibogue says the government should butt out. And so, last week, with the lobster season under way, he and other natives waited for a break in the bleak New Brunswick weather to drop more traps adorned with purple tags issued by the Burnt Church band. And with another 3,000 aboriginal traps set to be lowered into the water in the weeks ahead, the strategy is almost certain to heighten the

Native lobster fishermen in New Brunswick are heading for a showdown with the government

tension in a community still scarred by the anger and violence between native and non-native fishermen that surfaced last year. Says Karen Somerville, 37, who also laid traps last week: “Who knows if Burnt Church can ever be healed?” Somerville, the program developer at the Esgenoopetitj Learning Centre, a school for at-risk native youth, knows full well that some of Burnt Church’s wounds date from before last fall’s violence. A wide gulf has long separated the 1,400member Esgenoopetitj First Nation, which wallows in 85per-cent unemployment, and its non-native neighbours— fishermen who make a comfortable living from the waters off Burnt Church and summer folk who vacation in the seaside cottages and play golf at the local course. Natives in Burnt Church seized on the Supreme Court decision—that aboriginals in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and the eastern edge of Quebec could earn a “moderate livelihood” from hunting, fishing and gathering year-round—as a chance to turn their lives around. They dropped some 4,500 lobster traps last fall, at a time when frustrated non-native fishermen were forced to keep their boats tied up because their season had ended.

The situation quickly grew ugly. Almost all the native traps were cut. Native boats were harassed, band members were threatened with guns out on the water. Onshore, two trucks, a house and a native religious structure were burned. Three aboriginal men were beaten after they tried to take lobster traps from a non-native fishermen—apparently in retaliation for native traps being cut. As things worsened, 30 native warriors arrived

For the moment, relations between natives and non-natives have settled into a frosty truce

from other reserves, warning that they would protect their own people if the RCMP could not do the job.

Federal Fisheries Minister Herb Dhaliwal promised to find a peaceful solution to the impasse over the winter. He hired a federal negotiator, James MacKenzie, to forge interim fishing agreements with the 34 aboriginal communities affected by the court judgment. In most cases, the bands were offered boats and gear as well as economic development incentives and training if they agreed to fish within the federal governments rules limiting catches and seasons. To date, 15 bands have signed agreements, and five more have reached tentative deals. But the remaining 14, including Burnt Church, have refused the federal offer.

Why the holdout? The New Brunswick band says it has huge concerns about Ottawa’s ability to manage the Atlantic fishery. Those concerns only deepened last month when DFO announced that the Atlantic cod fishery was still showing no signs of recovering—and that Newfoundland stocks of snow crab, which many fishermen had turned to, were so depleted that catch limits had to be slashed by 25 per cent. In truth, though, says James Ward, a Burnt Church band member who serves as a fisheries policy developer, “This is all about control. DFO does not want to give up its power to regulate the fishery—and we don’t want to surrender something which the Supreme Court has ruled is ours.”

Hence the latest showdown. Since the commercial lobster

fishing season opened on May 1, DFO officers have seized 19 traps bearing native tags. So far, the RCMP have arrested two non-native supporters of the aboriginal cause who are members of the

I Christian Peacemaker Teams, an inter-

II denominational anti-violence move| ment, and who tried to take back native I traps seized by DFO officers. A rotating % group of four Peacemakers has been in & Burnt Church since April 4, living in

tents not far from the village’s wharf and keeping watch over the waters to monitor the DFO’s next move. Other outsiders may also be arriving: as the natives waited for more traps to replace those sabotaged or confiscated during last fall’s violence, the band warned that native warriors in Quebec, British Columbia and Manitoba had called to pledge support if the situation again deteriorates.

For the moment, relations between aboriginals and nonnatives seem to have settled into a frosty truce. But that could change quickly if native traps seem to be taking too many lobsters—or if aboriginals try to keep their boats on the water next fall once the normal lobster season ends. “The politicians let the issue drift last year,” says Mike Belliveau, executive-secretary of the Maritime Fishermen’s Union. “We expect everyone to be operating by the same rules next time around.” If not, more angry confrontation may follow. Natives may not want that. But last week, they seemed more than willing to pursue their cause—no matter where that course of action leads.