All sides happy with mediator in lobster war

Canadian Press
Friday, October 15, 1999

BURNT CHURCH, N.B. There was an unusual development Friday in the East Coast lobster dispute: people on all sides of the contentious issue agreed on something.

The ''something'' in this case was Ottawa's decision to appoint a negotiator, James MacKenzie, to help hammer out an accommodation that will allow native and non-native fishermen to work alongside each other instead of fight for access to valuable resources.

''We are very pleased,'' said Chief Lawrence Paul, co-chair of the Atlantic Policy Congress of First Nation Chiefs.

''We need meaningful dialogue with fisheries officials and commercial fishermen. We realize we have to regulate the fishery and we have to have quotas and conservation measures. We don't want to be deemed irresponsible.''

MacKenzie's appointment came as tensions were increasing in southwestern Nova Scotia.

At least 75 boats piloted by non-native fishermen took to the water off Yarmouth to look for native lobster traps.

The fishermen sailed out of Wedgeport, Pubnico, Cape Sable Island and other tiny fishing villages along the Nova Scotia coast vowing to pull up and smash any native traps they find.

Don Cunningham, a fish plant owner in the area, called the flotilla ''an impromptu get-together to show support that they are in this together.

''They're frustrated and feel they want to do something, even if it's only coming to Yarmouth and gathering to show the public that the fishing industry means something,'' he said.

Chief Deborah Robinson of the Acadia band in Yarmouth has said the reserve will honour a moratorium on fishing. But some band residents have vowed to ignore it and fish.

Organizers of the non-native fleet predicted the number of boats could swell to 200 today and there was talk of blocking a ferry that operates between Yarmouth and Bar Harbour, Me.

The appointment of MacKenzie, announced in the House of Commons by federal Fisheries Minister Herb Dhaliwal, was seen as the most positive step taken by Ottawa since the Supreme Court of Canada handed down its landmark decision last month in the case of Nova Scotia native Donald Marshall Jr.

The ruling upheld an 18th century treaty giving the Mi'kmaq and Maliseet of what are now New Brunswick and Nova Scotia unfettered fishing and hunting rights.

It sent shock waves through the commercial fishery, and in Burnt Church in northeastern New Brunswick, touched off acts of violence and vandalism.

Mike Belliveau, executive director of the Maritime Fishermen's Union, joined the chiefs in welcoming Ottawa's latest move. However, he cautioned MacKenzie will have to have the wisdom of Solomon and bags of money to figure how to cram hundreds of native fishermen into a system already stretched to the limit.

''I think a negotiator is obviously going to need pretty substantial financial backing for whatever he does because the way the fishery has evolved, it's all limited-entry fishery,'' said Belliveau. ''That's why there's such a controversy around natives ishing in closed seasons.''

''By everyone's consensus, we've maxed out the number of people who should be in the fishery, so if you're bringing in a whole bunch of new entrants, as you'd be doing under the Marshall decision, you're going to have to have compensation for those leaving. There's no question about it.''

MacKenzie, the federal government's chief negotiator for land claims with the Labrador Inuit, is to start talks immediately to settle long-term fishing arrangements. Paul and other members of the Atlantic Policy Congress, including several chiefs, will be in Ottawa Monday for a first meeting with MacKenzie.

Dhaliwal said a plan will be created within the next four or five months before the spring fishing season.

''I think my view has been consistent right from day one. I said co-operation, dialogue, sitting down with all the groups is a way to resolve this issue,'' he said.

Alex Dedam, a Mi'kmaq adviser at the Burnt Church First Nation, said the fishing issue soon will move beyond lobster to other species such as snow crab and smelt.

Dedam said the problem is agreeing on mutually acceptable quotas. In the lobster fishery, for example, federal fisheries officials have imposed a limit of 600 traps on Burnt Church _ a limit rejected by the 1,200-member band.

''We feel we cannot be limited,'' Dedam said. ''We can limit ourselves. That's the problem we have to resolve the numbers.''

Indian Affairs Minister Robert Nault said Ottawa will open talks on all treaties with native groups across Canada.

There will also be discussions later next week with provincial ministers of the provinces involved.

Nault said negotiations will encompass other issues that include cutting trees and gathering blueberries.

He said gathering, which is a treaty right affirmed in the Marshall decision, still has to be defined.

''The courts give us directions that there is a treaty right and it's now our role to define that based on the information we have from the courts and we will do that.''

Natives in New Brunswick say gathering includes harvesting trees. There have already been several incidents of aboriginal cutters taking trees on Crown land, although the province insists that's illegal, despite Marshall.

Nault urged caution on the part of natives.

''Even though we recognize that there are treaty rights, that doesn't mean you can just go out and administer those treaty rights without having a responsibility for the regulations that exist on the ground today.''