Burnt Church and Indian Brook

CBC News Online
Thursday, October 05, 2000

Burnt Church, New Brunswick has been the hotspot of tension between native and non-native fishermen ever since the Supreme Court released its ruling on the Marshall case in September 1999.

Trouble began in the early hours of Sunday, October 3, when about 150 fishing boats headed out into Miramichi Bay, one of Canada's most lucrative lobster fisheries, to protest against native trappers who were getting lobster out of season. The peaceful demonstration turned to an ugly shouting match when the boats returned, having destroyed hundreds of native traps. The vandalization of fishing equipment and three fish plants followed.

Despite the violence, Burnt Church didn't budge, refusing to give up the native fishing rights granted by the Marshall decision. Mi'kmaq warriors set up an armed encampment on the wharf in Burnt Church to protect native people continuing to catch lobster in the bay.

Later that week, the Mi'kmaq of Burnt Church and the Indian Brook band in Nova Scotia voted to ignore the proposal of First Nations leaders to stop lobster fishing for 30 days so the federal government could decide how to regulate the fishery. Of the 34 bands involved, they were the only two to reject the idea.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans, DFO, decided to enforce the moratorium and impose regulations on the two abstaining bands. Burnt Church would be limited to 600 traps, cutting its number down from 775, and Indian Brook would be allowed 800 traps. The traps would have to be tagged and equipment would have to meet DFO conservation regulations.

The fishing continued

In February, the DFO seized two crab fishing boats belonging to Indian Brook native people. The band's chief, Reg Maloney, claimed they had a DFO licence to explore for snow crab but officials led him to believe the boats were in the wrong area.

Over the next few months, as many other native bands signed tentative agreements with the government, Indian Brook continued to reject any idea of government regulation of the fishery. "We're resolved to exercise out treaty rights, and that's what we plan to do, no matter what it takes, we're going to keep fishing," pronounced Maloney.

But the position had consequences.

In a two-week period in late July and early August, seven more of the band's boats were seized and 18 people were arrested on charges of catching too many lobsters. The Mi'kmaq said they didn't need the government to make sure the lobster population is conserved because they already have their own conservation methods in place.

The Burnt Church Mi'kmaq held their position as well.

On August 9, the band members voted to reject federal regulation of the fishery despite the government's offer to provide five well-equipped boats and build a new $2-million wharf. Ottawa wants to set a 40-trap limit but the band says it has the right to set more than 5,000 traps.

The following week, tensions rose again in Burnt Church as enraged Mi'kmaq declared war against the DFO after a late-night raid on several lobster traps in Miramichi Bay. Four people were arrested, and one boat and over 700 traps were seized. Native fishers protested by setting up a blockade on Highway 11, a major commercial route in the province. The Mi'kmaq claimed officers pointed guns at them, but the DFO denied the allegations, saying that only pepper spray was used and one baton pulled out.

With Burnt Church fishermen continuing their lobster catch, Dhaliwal said fisheries officers would continue to seize traps and make arrests. But he also called the native leaders to return to the negotiating table, claiming the Burnt Church band refused to even meet with his federal negotiator.

Both the Burnt Church and the Indian Brook Mi'kmaq believe any compromise with the government would be an infringement of their rights.