Mother Nature keeps natives on shore

The Calgary Herald
Sunday, October 10, 1999

BURNT CHURCH, N.B. The forces of nature, not the pressures of government or aboriginal leaders, conspired to keep defiant native lobster fishermen off the waters of Miramichi Bay on Saturday.

Strong, cold winds, high seas and rain turned the eastern New Brunswick shore into a no-fishing zone on what also happened to be the first day of a voluntary moratorium in the turbulent Maritime lobster fishery.

The fishermen of the Mi'kmaq Burnt Church reserve remain defiant and determined to pursue out-of-season fishing and hunting, despite a call by Atlantic chiefs to stay off the water.

But most fishermen have only small open boats, and they're not about to risk their lives for the treaty rights that have provoked turmoil and violence in the New Brunswick lobster fishery.

Fisherman Robert Sylliboy of Burnt Church was one of dozens of fishermen who hunkered down in his warm house on Saturday rather than head out onto the treacherous waters.

He said the lobster fishery is coming to a natural close due to the cold weather and migratory patterns of the lobster which are making them harder to catch.

He figured that by next week, fishing will be pretty much done in Miramichi Bay, but he's vowing to leave some of his traps in longer to prove a point.

''It's out of principle, it's not out of spite,'' Sylliboy said. ''They gave us this right and I'm exercising it. It's the principle of the thing.''

Only one native fisherman went fishing Saturday, but the wharf at Burnt Church was busy.

Dozens of new lobster traps were unloaded from a truck to replace some of those lost a week ago when angry non-native fishermen destroyed hundreds of native traps.

That led to escalating violence in which, among other things, a non-native cottage was burned, a native place of worship was torched and a native man was hurt in a truck-ramming incident.

The RCMP have yet to lay any charges. They said Saturday that investigations are continuing and they've beefed up security with more patrol cars and a tactical team on standby in nearby Neguac.

The violence and vandalism at Burnt Church were triggered by reaction to last month's Supreme Court of Canada decision that found Maritime natives have a priority right to year-round hunting, fishing and gathering.

Many non-native fishermen are furious at the decision, which they believe gives natives an unfair advantage and unfettered access to fragile resources.

Federal Fisheries Minister Herb Dhaliwal is expected to announce today what action he will take to regulate the fishery.

Meanwhile, secret meetings held in recent days between fisheries officials and Burnt Church members over possible regulations proved fruitless.

Alex Dedam, the band manager, emerged from a two-hour meeting Saturday night saying band members will be closely watching Ottawa's next move.

''I'm not sure we can negotiate any longer,'' Dedam said. ''The DFO has said they think the minister will issue a moratorium and if that's the case, we'll have a different ballgame altogether. ''

Sylliboy said he would pull his traps if the no-fishing deal applies to absolutely everybody, no exceptions.

''If he (Dhaliwal) says the natives and non-natives get out of the water, then I will,'' he said. ''If he says just the native fishermen come out and then let the non-natives fish, that is wrong.''

Ottawa says it has sole authority over the fishery, and that both native and non-native people here can fish for lobster only in the spring.