Tensions high in Atlantic fish fight

Canadian Press
Monday, October 4, 1999

BURNT CHURCH, N.B. Natives in this small reserve on New Brunswick's Miramichi Bay were tense and uneasy Monday over the possibility of more clashes with non-natives over fishing rights. Natives called for the laying of charges after three aboriginal men were injured-one of them seriously-during a night of vandalism and confrontation Sunday.

''What's going to happen if there are no charges, the natives are going to get pissed off and they're going to try to get even,'' said Kathy Lambert, a member of the Burnt Church First Nation. ''It could get violent.

The young men were reportedly on a non-native's property when their truck collided with a vehicle driven by non-natives. The men were beaten after the collision, said the brother of one victim. John David Dedum, 30, was still in hospital in nearby Newcastle after undergoing at least one surgery on his ear. He was expected to have another operation for other injuries.

His brother, Clarence Dedum Jr., feared more violence if police don't lay charges.

''We're not going to take this sitting down,'' Dedum said at the Burnt Church wharf, where natives in combat fatigues were guarding fishing boats and setting up teepees.

''It's going to be personal now and it's going to get worse before it gets better.''

There was a glimmer of hope late Monday that calm could be restored after Atlantic Mi'kmaq chiefs revealed they are poised to declare a 30-day fishing moratorium.

The proposed moratorium will be on the agenda when chiefs meet in Halifax today.

Chief Lawrence Paul, chairman of the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi'kmaq Chiefs, said a moratorium would be ''good PR'' for natives. ''It's not only Canada watching how the Mi'kmaq chiefs handle this ruling, it's the whole world,'' Paul said. ''We need to act like responsible people.''

In Ottawa, federal Fisheries Minister Herb Dhaliwal appealed for calm while stressing that officials won't tolerate more violence. ''The activity we witnessed yesterday won't be tolerated,'' he said.

RCMP Cpl. Jacques Giroux said officers questioned the man who owns the property where the altercation occurred.

''No arrests have been made, no charges laid,'' said Giroux.

Band leaders were also upset that Prime Minister Jean Chretien is considering asking the Supreme Court of Canada to suspend a landmark ruling that gave natives the right to fish out of season.

The court ruled last month that an 18th century treaty gives aboriginals the right to fish whenever they want and without licences.

''My members will continue fishing regardless of what the prime minister says,'' vowed Vernon Mitchell, a band councillor.

''We're going to continue fishing because the Supreme Court recognized our treaty right to commercially fish, hunt and gather and that's what we're going to do.''

Mitchell said he planned to attend a meeting today in Moncton., N.B., with Dhaliwal, but added he won't sign any new agreements. Dhaliwal said he also plans to meet with natives and non-natives Wednesday in Halifax.

The incidents in Miramichi began Sunday when non-natives in about 150 boats pulled up hundreds of native lobster traps and released their catches.

It soon spilled over to three area fish plants, where an angry mob trashed equipment, and to a wharf, where two trucks were set on fire. Police towed away the charred remains of one of the trucks Monday.

Non-natives say lobster stocks will be decimated if natives are allowed to fish unchecked. They say it's unfair that natives don't have to pay for expensive lobster licences and can fish throughout the year while they are confined to seasons.

Some natives confronted RCMP officers Monday, demanding that some of the non-natives be charged with destroying their traps.

Giroux said the Mounties were investigating, but natives had to identify their traps and connect them to those who cut the lines.

''What they're trying to do is link up people who did participate in the cutting of traps and the victims of the cutting,'' Giroux told reporters gathered on the Burnt Church wharf.

''To lay charges, you need to have a person who committed the offence and . . . a victim.''

Giroux said the investigation would be time-consuming because natives must fill out forms to claim what they've lost. Natives say it will be virtually impossible to identify traps cut free and accused the RCMP of avoiding charging any non-natives.

Anne Dedum, 30, lost all of her 50 traps to vandalism. She paid $80 apiece for them after the Supreme Court ruling.

''I don't have any more money to put more traps out,'' said Dedum, who kept her three children home from school Monday, fearing they would be harassed. ''And how are we going to identify our lost traps when they're in the water right now?

''We got no buoys out there, so we don't know how we're going to be claiming our traps.''

There are fears the violence could spread to southwestern Nova Scotia, where non-native lobster fishers had set a deadline of 6 p.m. AT today for Ottawa to curb out-of-season fishing.

Fishers there have threatened to take to the water to disable native traps if Ottawa allows the out-of-season fishing to continue.

In Yarmouth, N.S., over 700 people attended a waterfront rally to urge Ottawa to end the native fishing.

Michael Baker, Nova Scotia's attorney general, condemned vigilantism and said he's confident police can control the situation.

''I cannot condone any breech of the law,'' Baker, who is also aboriginal affairs minister.

''If anyone's going to breech the law, there's a potential they're going to be called to account for that breech.''

Baker also urged aboriginal leaders to define how they intend to conserve fragile stocks.

''They've been talking about being in favour of conservation, but I haven't seen any specifics that they're in favour of,'' he said.

''It's not up to me to guess what they have on their mind. I think they have a duty now to set out specifics.''

Native leaders have said they are following normal conservation measures such as throwing back under-sized lobsters.

The Lennox Island reserve, which is fishing in Prince Edward Island's Malpeque Bay, has set a limit of 10 traps per individual and 50 traps per household.