Tensions cool, native support grows in fishing dispute

Canadian Broadcasting Stystem
Sunday, September 24, 2000

BURNT CHURCH, N.B. - Heavy rain and rough waters kept federal fisheries officers from pulling any lobster traps from Miramichi Bay Sunday, cooling tensions in the fishery dispute.

Meanwhile, support is growing across North America for the Burnt Church band and its claim to a treaty right to fish.


More than a dozen demonstrators continue to occupy the constituency offices of federal Fisheries Minister Herb Dhaliwal in Vancouver. They've been camped there since Friday, demanding Dhaliwal's resignation.
At a temporary roadblock in Burnt Church Sunday

Okanagan Nations Alliance Chief Dan Wilson is warning of highway and rail blockades in the B.C. Interior if there are any deaths or injuries in the dispute.

He points out much of Canada's transport, communications and power infrastructure travels through native reserves.

In the U.S., dozens of natives from the Passamaquoddy First Nation in eastern Maine marched across the U.S.-Canada border at St. Stephen, N.B. Saturday. It was a show of support for the Burnt Church natives.

The Passamaquoddy natives don't recognize the international boundary, because they say their ancestors hunted and fished on both sides of the border.

And members of First Nations communities in Manitoba have already travelled to Burnt Church by bus. More are expected to make the journey.

The Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs says natives in Canada are prepared to protest in support of the Burnt Church band.

Stewart Phillip dismisses arguments by federal fisheries officials that the lobster fishery must be closed for conservation reasons. He says Department of Fisheries and Oceans is using the excuse to justify its "heavy handed enforcement."

More than 900 lobster traps confiscated

Federal officers have hauled more than 900 lobster traps from Miramichi Bay over the past two days.

The Burnt Church band says fewer than 100 cages remain in the water. But the Department of Fisheries and Oceans has estimated the number at closer to 1,000.

There were no confrontations during Saturday's raid, when about 800 traps were brought to shore.


Mi'kmaq fishermen, who say Ottawa has no right to confiscate their equipment, watched peacefully from a distance.
A non-native fisherman on the dock Sunday

But fisheries officers appeared careful not to venture too close to shore concentrating on traps in deep water at least one kilometre from land.

"Because of the tension that is out on the water at this time, we decided not to go that close," said Alphonse Gosselin, a federal fisheries officer.

Officials displayed the seized equipment in a nearby community of non-native fishermen, who've been threatening to head into Miramichi Bay and destroy the band's cages themselves.

But some of the non-native fishermen said they were unsatisfied, and demanded federal officers shut down the band's entire fishery, including the traps near shore.

Shootings escalate tensions

Tensions have been high for the past few days in the region, and police are investigating two shootings.

Early Saturday morning, people were woken several noises that sounded like gunshots. The RCMP arrested three non-native men and seized three loaded weapons, as well as alcohol, and marijuana. Investigators said the suspects were intoxicated at the time.


The shots come one day after a bullet was fired into a non-native fishing boat on Miramichi Bay. There were four people on the vessel, but no one was injured.
Bullet hole in fishing boat

Legal interpretations fuel dispute

The dispute began last September when the Supreme Court of Canada affirmed the native right to fish based on centuries-old treaties.

The Burnt Church band has refused to remove its traps, arguing it has the legal right to fish. It also accused Ottawa of exaggerating the number of cages in the water.

But the federal government said the figure is irrelevant, and that the fishery must be closed to preserve the lobster stock next season.

Non-native fishermen in the area have argued that their livelihood is at stake if the band is allowed to put as many traps as it wants in the water all year round.