Animosity growing in native communities

Canadian Press
Thursday, October 14, 1999

BURNT CHURCH, N.B. Animosity toward federal Fisheries Minister Herb Dhaliwal is building like an autumn gale on New Brunswick's Miramichi Bay.

The Burnt Church First Nation, the main flashpoint in the dispute over aboriginal fishing rights, sent off a stinging letter to the embattled minister suggesting he is both ill-informed and deceitful in his approach to the native lobster fishery.

''He hasn't shown leadership, he's just prejudiced,'' native fisherman Edward Junior Dedam said at the Burnt Church wharf Thursday.

''When it comes to us, we can't do nothing . . . They try to take away everything from us.''

At issue is Dhaliwal's attempt to limit the aboriginal fishery in Miramichi Bay by imposing a ''communal licence'' and a maximum of 600 lobster traps on the reserve and its roughly 1,200 citizens.

Dedam noted bitterly that non-native, commercial fishermen are allowed 300 traps per boat.

''If the Department of Fisheries tries to pull my traps, I'm going to step up and say, 'Hey, you guys are not touching my traps. You can't do that.' It's our right,'' said Dedam.

The letter to Dhaliwal, signed by Chief Wilbur Dedam and the band council, states the minister has no legal basis to assume that the aboriginal treaty right to hunt, fish and gather is only a communal right, not an individual right.

The letter written Tuesday was discussed at a meeting of Atlantic chiefs Wednesday where aboriginal leaders decided natives would no longer honour a 30-day moratorium on out-of-season fishing.

The Burnt Church reserve challenged Dhaliwal to find the ''page and paragraph'' in the landmark Supreme Court of Canada decision affirming Mi'kmaq and Maliseet treaties that says those rights apply only to communities.

In a more conciliatory development, native and non-native fishing representatives met in Halifax on Thursday to draft guidelines for the unregulated native fishery.

Members from about 12 Nova Scotia fishing groups and Bernd Christmas, spokesman for the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi'kmaq Chiefs, said they would consider asking Ottawa to buy back fishing licences and give them to natives.

''We're asking for a buyback,'' said Percy Hayne of the Nova Scotia Fleet Planning Board. ''It's the cheapest way out for the government because if you're going to get into this trying to integrate a whole bunch more people in the fishery, there's going to be nothing but problems, not only in Burnt Church. It'll be everywhere.''

The representatives said they would take the proposals that address fishing seasons, different species, and conservation and licence distribution back to their members and chiefs for consideration.

They're hoping to have an interim plan in place before the lobster season opens for non-native fishermen in Yarmouth, N.S., on Nov. 29.

All three officials complained bitterly about the way federal Fisheries Minister Herb Dhaliwal has handled the issue since it erupted a month ago.

''(Natives) were only exercising their rights and they got stabbed in the back by their minister,'' said Ron Wolkins of Southwest Nova Fishermen's Rights Association. ''Fishermen have been pitted against the government of Canada.''

In Ottawa, Dhaliwal said he was pleased there was a meeting and he plans to start work on a long-term strategy today.

''I think it's a great sign,'' Dhaliwal said. ''I hope to appoint a negotiator to start the discussion on a long-term plan.''

Some are worried there could be more confrontations between native and non-native fishermen, much like those seen in the Burnt Church reserve since the Supreme Court ruled on Sept. 17 that natives have the treaty right to fish, hunt and gather year-round and without licences.

Native fishermen have pledged to remain on the water in Burnt Church and in Yarmouth.

However, in Lennox Island, P.E.I., Chief Charlie Sark said band residents would continue to honour the moratorium.

''Our community's support of the temporary shutdown is based on its desire to work towards the long-term goals of a true treaty-based fishery and peaceful co-existence with our non-aboriginal neighbours,'' said Sark.

The situation was quiet at Burnt Church on Thursday as another day of bad weather kept boats moored.

There were no trap seizures despite speculation the Department of Fisheries and Oceans might try to enforce trap limits.