Moratorium proposal infuriates Burnt Church natives

Canadian Press
Wednesday, October 6, 1999

BURNT CHURCH, N.B. Natives reacted bitterly Wednesday to news that the Atlantic chiefs had agreed to ask their members to consider a voluntary fishing moratorium.

Mi'kmaq in this tense reserve said they were shocked that their band council and chief would give in to pressure from the federal government to implement a 30-day moratorium on the lobster fishery.

''I ain't listening to anybody,'' said Gaylen Paul, a 27-year-old native fisherman. ''They don't want to listen to the people, to hell with them.''

Natives, frustrated and anxious after days of violence over the disputed lobster fishery, huddled around a bonfire on a beach near the reserve to sing traditional songs and await news from the council.

Millie Augustine, a native lawyer on the reserve, said the news of a possible moratorium made people feel sold out by their chiefs.

''If they agree to the moratorium, that's fine but we're not going along with it,'' she said. ''They went there and promised to stand up for our rights. They betrayed us.''

Native leaders from 35 bands throughout Atlantic Canada agreed Wednesday in Halifax to ask fishermen on their reserves to stop landing lobsters for 30 days.

They hope a temporary cessation will allow officials to develop regulations for the fishery and let tempers cool after a series of nasty confrontations between native and non-native fishermen.

Non-natives are upset with a landmark Supreme Court of Canada ruling last month that gives aboriginals the right to fish, hunt and gather without licences and out of season.

They protested the decision Sunday by destroying hundreds of native lobster pots in the Miramichi Bay where Burnt Church natives had set traps after the Sept. 17 court ruling.

In the days following, two non-native trucks were set on fire on the Burnt Church wharf, a non-native cottage near the reserve was set on fire, a native religious structure on the reserve was burned to the ground and relations between the two sides soured.

Some worried late Wednesday that a moratorium would lead to more violence.

''Payback's a bitch,'' said one native man who didn't want to be identified.

The announcement followed an all-day meeting in Halifax with federal Fisheries Minister Herb Dhaliwal and represented a sudden change in position.

Originally only 25 of the 35 bands had agreed to ask their members to stop fishing. And only one of those bands had put boats in the water after the Supreme Court ruling. But the chiefs continued talking and announced a unified position.

''The chiefs shall request that all fishermen observe a 30-day voluntary shutdown of the entire lobster fishery, both inshore and offshore, as of Saturday, Oct. 9,'' said a joint statement from the chiefs.

Officials from Burnt Church initially voted against the moratorium, as did those from Big Cove, N.B.

The two reserves account for the bulk of native fishing in New Brunswick. Burnt Church boats placed 3,500 traps in Miramichi Bay.

Big Cove fishers set about 1,500 traps just outside the bay. It was only after the minister had left that Ben Silliboy, grand chief of the Mi'kmaq Grand Council, made the same request of the chiefs and won unanimous agreement.

''You have to understand the culture,'' explained J. J. Bear, a spokesman for the Atlantic Policy Congress of First Nations Chiefs.

''The culture is we respect our elders.''

Chief Robert Levi of Big Cove said a strained history with the federal government made it difficult to acquiesce to the minister.

''It's hard to trust somebody that on the one hand says it's helping you and on the other persecutes you,'' said Levi, adding he believes the minister is looking for the best solution for all parties.

The chiefs also proposed that the fisheries minister impose a moratorium on the entire commercial lobster fishery this Saturday while natives and government officials negotiate a deal.

''What we're trying to do is have an interim agreement in place before the larger lobster fishery starts down in Yarmouth,'' said Bernd Christmas, a negotiator for the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi'kmaq Chiefs.

The talks, which dragged on for nearly 11 hours, drew aboriginal leaders from across the country in a show of support. They included Chief Phil Fontaine of the Assembly of First Nations and Joseph Norton, grand chief of the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake.

The meeting also drew Donald Marshall Jr., a Nova Scotia Mi'kmaq who sparked the fishing dispute by winning the court case, claiming a 1760 treaty entitled him to fish without a licence and out of season.

That angered non-native fishers, whose seasons don't begin until the end of November in southwestern Nova Scotia and May 1 in parts of New Brunswick.

Marshall shook with anger as he talked about a spree of vandalism and violence in Burnt Church.

''If the Supreme Court of Canada, or if Canadians, don't accept what happened, well that's too God-damned bad,'' he said.

''We been treated wrong a long time and we'll always be treated wrong.''

There are about 420,000 licensed commercial traps in northeastern New Brunswick alone and about 600,000 in the entire province.

Dhaliwal said before the breakthrough that he was ''a little disappointed'' in not getting a full moratorium.

''But that was their decision,'' he said of the native leaders.

''I said from Day 1 that I would respect whatever decision they came up with - and I respect that decision.''