Jittery non-native residents fear for safety

Canadian Press
Wednesday, October 6, 1999

BURNT CHURCH, N.B. Most of this community's elderly non-native residents crammed into a small meeting hall Wednesday to seek assurances of their personal safety.

Many are fearing personal attacks or damage to their property after three days of intense confrontations with their native neighbours.

Some residents of the Burnt Church reserve and nearby New Jersey say they have received anonymous threats because of their involvement in the disputed lobster fishery.

''My husband has been threatened,'' said a woman at the meeting who refused to give her name. ''This isn't about fishing anymore. This is about two communities.''

The woman, who has lived in this small shoreline community most of her life, said her husband was threatened by natives on Sunday, when non-native fishermen from another town on Miramichi Bay pulled up and destroyed possibly thousands of native lobster traps. His boat was tied to the wharf, but was taken to nearby Neguac with the help of natives. She said all the electronics were stripped off, bringing damages to about $5,000.

The incident, involving dozens of non-native boats from Escuminac, N.B., triggered a wave of nasty incidents that began when the Supreme Court of Canada recently upheld native rights to fish out of season.

Two non-native trucks were set on fire on the Burnt Church wharf and at least three natives were injured after a physical confrontation with non-native fishermen.

In the days following, one non-native summer cottage was set on fire and on Tuesday a sacred native religious arbour was torched on the reserve just north of Miramichi.

The events have left this once peaceful community riven with fear and wondering how it will ever forge good relations with the 1,200 or so natives on the reserve.

''We have a long, long healing process to go through to just get back to where we were,'' said David Warmer, a non-native who helped organize the meeting that was closed to the media.

They also agreed to hold a religious service today for both non-native and native residents. There are about 120 non-native people in the two communities, some of whom Warmer said were too frightened to leave their homes to attend the meeting. He said most of the residents are elderly and live alone.

Many feel the dispute was started by non-native fishermen from other areas.

Tensions were so high Wednesday that about 75 natives raced to the wharf after mistakenly hearing that a convoy of non-natives was headed there. Many wearing combat fatigues and waving Mohawk flags congregated at the wharf while a coast guard vessel patrolled offshore and a police helicopter flew overhead. RCMP in several vehicles also stood watch.

''People are just grumpy and nervous,'' said one native woman. In Halifax, native leaders from across the region met all day with federal Fisheries Minister Herb Dhaliwal.

Twenty-five of the region's 35 bands agreed during the session to a fishing moratorium to help ease tensions. However, of those 25 bands, only one-Nova Scotia's Acadia reserve-had put boats in the water after the Supreme Court ruling.

Burnt Church leaders decided against the moratorium as boats from the reserve were heading out to set more traps on a fickle day that alternated between light showers and soothing sunlight.

A native band in Passamaquoddy, Me., was threatening to make the dispute international.

The 3,200-member U.S. band said the 1760 treaty that gave natives the right to fish and hunt without limit also pertains to them.

They said they were expected to be ready to begin fishing in Canadian waters by early November.

''Now we feel that what we've always felt by treaty has been recognized,'' said Edward Bassett, lieutenant-governor of the Pleasant Point Passamaquoddy tribe.

''This affects us in a real way.''

The 200 Passamaquoddy in New Brunswick and the thousands in Maine say they don't recognize boundary restrictions between the United States and Canada and that they can fish in Canadian and U.S. waters.

The Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans has said it doesn't think the ruling applies to the Passamaquoddy. ''I think they're making that statement without having the full knowledge of the law,'' Eric Altvater, proxy for the Passamaquoddy Band, said in Halifax where Atlantic chiefs were meeting with federal Fisheries Minister Herb Dhaliwal.

''We don't care if we're recognized by Canada or not . . . We have never asked permission from Canada to be who we are.'' Mark Walters, a law professor at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., said the U.S. tribe may be on shaky legal ground.

The treaty might no longer apply to them because it was signed before the United States declared independence from England following the American Revolution in 1776.

''If there was evidence that they sided with the Americans during the revolution, then any treaty obligations would be void,'' said Walters, an expert on native rights.

Also, the Supreme Court ruling itself only applies to status aboriginals living in Canada, Walters said.

''The Constitution protects treaty rights, but the definition of aboriginal people might be limited to Canadian people,'' he said.