Burnt Church and broken promises: how a community can heal

Catholic New Times
Sunday, October 31, 1999

Recent events in New Brunswick's fishing community of Burnt Church have brought the worst side of the Atlantic fishing industry, already under economic assault, into the Canadian consciousness.

A recent Supreme Court decision allowing Native fishers to set out lobster traps after the regular season led rapidly to rioting, the destruction of property and the end of lifelong friendships. Racial slurs and threats of violence soon became fodder for the media and the cause of finger pointing during question period on Parliament Hill.

The cause of the uproar was a Sept. 17 announcement that the Supreme Court of Canada had decided to uphold an Aboriginal treaty, signed in 1760, allowing Native fishermen to fish in the off-season for commercial, not just ceremonial purposes, a right they had been denied for nearly three decades.

It was a victory for Native fishers, whose industry was almost completely wiped out when new regulations for lobster fishing were implemented by Romeo Leblanc, the fisheries minister in 1974, says Kevin Christmas, a natural resource advisor for Atlantic chiefs.

''In one generation we lost almost 7,000 years of corporate memory. The law for the past 25 years has been nothing but a misery, costing thousands and thousands of dollars,'' he said in an interview from his home in Big Cove.

In 1974 the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) extended the domestic fishing limit from 11 to 200 miles in order to keep out foreign competition. In the name of resource preservation, fishing licenses were also implemented and only given out to fishers who met a certain criteria. At that time they could fish only on the shores where they lived and they had to have been fishing full-time the year before.

Ignorance of Aboriginal culture in the Atlantic provinces led to an almost total shutout of Native fishers who did not meet the criteria, says Christmas.

''We believed in our treaty rights to fish anywhere we wanted. Income tax records were used to determine whether you were a full-time fisherman, but you don't pay income tax on a reserve so no records could be presented and we were not eligible to fish.''

From that low point, he says he has seen the long and difficult struggle to this fall's announcement that was based on the Supreme Court's Sparrow decision on fishing for ceremonial purposes handed down in 1993. But he says he is not surprised the reaction from non-Native fishers was as strong as it was once the Native lobster traps hit the water.

On Oct. 3 a near riot was sparked as non-Native fishers from the area made good on threats to destroy any traps put in the water after their season ended. They succeeded in destroying over 3,000. The ensuing weeks led to mounting tensions as Native groups reacted and the government floundered in attempts to appease both sides.

''I think Canada had stero-types of what the Native and non-Native reaction would be and they misjudged it. They (the government) saw us causing massive drain-out of the public coffers but expected the reaction from non-Native fishermen to be against Canada, not Aboriginal people. We didn't think that would happen for a minute,'' says Christmas.

And in fact it was so. While Native and non-Native fishers alike have scoffed at the government's attempts to control the situation, the non-Native fishers took their anger out on those they feel are directly taking their lobster, and their livelihood. This anger is heightened at a time when unemployment is on the rise, and environmental concerns have already limited their ability to fish, while costs continue to rise.

Maurice Theriault is a representative for the Maritime Fisheries Union working out of a bay just south of Burnt Church. He says the reaction was unfortunate, but should not have been unexpected considering the speed with which the traps were put in place after the decision was made.

''After the decision, because Native fishing rights had been neglected for so long, there was no regulation placed on them and now that they're in the water, it's almost impossible, politically and legally, to regulate. But in the long run regulation will take place,'' he says.

The main concern for non-Native fishers is that lobster reproduces only in the summer. That means the substantial catch afforded to Native fishers in the fall when the competition is drastically reduced will not be replaced before the commercial fishing vessels start up again in the spring.

Christmas says the idea that Native fishing in the off-season will be detrimental to the fishing industry is a myth for a few reasons. One is that only 5,200 traps were laid out after the decision while there have been up to 400,000 traps laid by non-Native commercial fishers in the bay. The other is that regulations set up in the 1970's by Romeo Leblanc, to ward off international competition, left a hole in responsibilities between the federal and provincial governments into which the Native fishing industry was swallowed almost whole.

''In Big Cove, 425 families were fishing full time in 1974. In 1975 there were none. There are much fewer fishermen now than there were in 1976. Now we are only fishing .0087 per cent of the lobster in the area.''

But these facts and figure do not remove the concerns of non-Native fishers who have their own ways of calculating intake.

''They are using around 5,2000 traps, but they're getting a very high yield. When you trap off-season you have no competition. It's conceivable that if they fished for three weeks with 4,000 traps they could take in 600,000 pounds of lobster. That economic impact is very big for people taking home only about $15,000 at the end of a season,'' explains Theriault.

But even though incomes have been at least perceived to be threatened, and insults have clouded the salt air, Christmas wants to make it clear that cash and creed are not really what sparked the harsh reaction. The blame, he says, lies squarely on the shoulders of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, both past and present.

''The press has by and large overlooked that it's not a question of income or racism per se. This dispute has a history. What Romeo Leblanc did to the Mi'kmaq was equivalent to cultural genocide. When you see fisherman reacting viscerally to the urgings of the ministry today you see the build up of frustration.''

While non-Native fishers have had an easier history with the government, Theriault also points the finger towards the DFO for bringing on too much change too fast.

''In the long run, regulation will be in place. When the ice comes, people won't be so excited and the DFO has the power to regulate the fisheries, and the responsibility to ensure it,'' he says.

According to Theriault, resolve will come in the form of buyouts when non-Native fishers will be paid to give up their licenses, and their share of the catch will be redistributed taking into account the share of Native traps.

''We think it can be resolved once we know what is going to be the share of the Natives with their new rights, and they are entitled to that right. Then we can integrate the Native community with buyouts.''

Christmas agrees that the hot tempers on both sides will cool down in the winter months as fears are proven false and non-Native fishers adjust to the idea of sharing the water.

''All racism is rooted in superior notions. I don't think they believe their right is superior to ours anymore.''