Native warriors take control of wharf: Fishermen poised to defy Ottawa's attempt to close down fishery

The Calgary Herald
Tuesday, October 5, 1999

BURNT CHURCH, N.B. Native warriors in combat fatigues patrolled the local wharf in shifts Monday as the drama over the backlash to a Supreme Court ruling upholding ancient aboriginal fishing rights continued to heighten.

Stakeholders prepared to meet today to find a solution in the wake of a weekend of violence that saw non-native fishermen destroy the lobster traps of native fishermen in northeastern New Brunswick.

The natives of the Burnt Church reserve, who were hit by Sunday's attacks, appeared set to defy any attempt by Ottawa to close the fishery or get a suspension of last month's Supreme Court ruling, which gave some of them the right to fish in the off-season without licences.

If the Chretien government follows through on such talk, ''I think most of our people will go fishing anyway,'' said Alex Dedam, controller of the Burnt Church reserve.

They would do so on the basis of their treaty rights, which the Supreme Court upheld, and ''we'll see what happens, Dedam added.''

Despite fears of more clashes with non-natives, aboriginal fishermen continued to fish Monday, asking the RCMP for protection in the event of any conflicts.

Late Monday night there were reports that a non-native residence near the reserve had gone up in flames, but it was not immediately clear whether the incident was related to the fishing controversy.

The native warriors who guarded fishing boats were unarmed and have been called upon to act as peacekeepers.

''This is not Oka,'' said Dedam. ''The chief asked them to play a peacekeeping role to ensure the safety of people exercising their rights under the treaty.''

Dedam said Mohawks from Quebec offered to help provide additional security to the band, but the Mohawks were told they weren't needed at this time.

On Monday night, warriors patrolled the wharf area in pickup trucks.

While RCMP officers came and went, fires were also being tended in a handful of teepees near the water, which glowed like lanterns in the dark.

Federal Fisheries Minister Herb Dhaliwal is to meet today with native and non-native fishermen and provincial ministers with the aim of finding a solution to the crisis.

On Monday he threatened to shut down the East Coast lobster fishery if a compromise is not reached ''in the next few days'' to end the violence between natives and non-native fishermen.

On Sunday non-native fishermen vandalized native lobster traps and freed their catches.

Three natives were injured in confrontations with non-natives and on the reserve there were threats that if charges weren't laid natives would take it upon themselves to get even.

Dhaliwal warned Monday that the Supreme Court ruling recognizing the right of native people to fish and hunt during the off-season does not mean that they can now flout all fisheries laws.

But the government's apparent failure to prepare for the fallout from the court ruling has created a credibility problem for Dhaliwal, who is jokingly referred to be some in the region as ''Dilly- dallywall.''

''I don't think Dhaliwal knows what he's doing,'' said Dedam, who added that Ottawa has been sending ''mixed messages.''

Prime Minister Jean Chretien suggested Monday that his government may ask the Supreme Court of Canada to stay its Sept. 19 ruling, which upheld a 1760 treaty and allowed some Maritime natives to fish year-round, until the issues can be worked out.

''It was disturbing,'' said Dedam. ''Most of the people were shocked to hear what the prime minister said.''

Any move to use legal or parliamentary avenues to suspend the ruling would send a dark message, said Chief Lawrence Paul, co-chair of the Atlantic Policy Congress of First Nations chiefs.

''It would show a further injustice,'' Paul said Monday in advance of today's meeting of the congress chiefs in Halifax to find a consensus on how to calm tensions in the Atlantic fishery following the court ruling.

''The eyes of the world are watching what Canada does now,'' Paul said from Truro, N.S.

He suggested that if the chiefs do not agree on a unified strategy before meeting with Dhaliwal, Ottawa may go ahead and get the ruling suspended and order all boats off the water.

''We would have to respect that,'' Paul said bitterly. ''We don't have the Russian army backing us. But it would be a dismal day for Canada.''