Religious group sends 'peacekeeping team' to observe native fishery

Canadian Press
Sunday, April 2, 2000

HALIFAX God's peacekeepers are about to enter the native fishing war.

A Mennonite and Quaker organization trained in peacekeeping and non-violent activism is sending ''a violence-reduction team'' to northern New Brunswick to observe the spring lobster fishery.

A four-member team from the Christian Peacemaker Corps is to arrive Tuesday in Burnt Church, a Mi'kmaq reserve torn by violence last fall in a dispute over native fishing rights.

The team intends to stay in the community for about three months.

''We're willing to place our bodies in the midst of the conflict in order to reduce the risk of violence,'' said Doug Pritchard, the corps' Canadian co-ordinator.

''We're certainly active in that role. We're not observing from a distance.''
 
Pritchard said a fact-finding team went to Burnt Church in January and found that natives and non-natives are equally worried violence will erupt again when the lobster season opens May 1.

Last October, buildings and vehicles were burned and about 3,000 native lobster traps destroyed in Miramichi Bay after the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that Mi'kmaq and Maliseet people have the right to earn a moderate livelihood from fishing, hunting and gathering.

A subsequent clarification by the high court said the right is subject to federal regulation.

The dispute flickered out with the onset of winter, but tensions in the community still simmer beneath the surface.

''It doesn't seem to have gotten any better,'' Pritchard said in a weekend interview from his Toronto office.

''It seems the situation has become even more polarized than last fall, if that's possible.''

J.J. Bear, a spokesman for the Atlantic Policy Congress of First Nation Chiefs, said aboriginals want to avoid trouble, but have every intention of going fishing under their own terms.

He hadn't heard of the Christian Peacekeeping Corps, but said the presence of neutral parties could help if tensions boil over again later this spring.

''With other groups involved, (non-natives and aboriginals) might not be tempted towards violent tendencies,'' he said in an interview Sunday.

''This could be sort of a help. We want a peaceful resolution.''

Maurice Theriault, an official with the Maritime Fishermen's Union, said he hadn't heard of the corps either.

But the situation in Burnt Church has improved enough since last fall that the group may find it has little to do, he said.

''Even if it's not that apparent, we've covered some ground,'' Theriault said from his home in Moncton, N.B.

Commercial fishermen, aboriginals and Ottawa have all taken steps to ease tensions, he said. And fishermen will be too busy fishing to cause any trouble.

''I hope we won't see any sign of violence and we won't need any exterior intervention.''

Miramichi Bay wasn't the only hot spot last fall and Pritchard said the Christian Peacemaker team is prepared to intervene in other locations where the issue has caused heated emotions, including Yarmouth, N.S.

He said the team won't take sides in the dispute, even though the organization seems to have done just that in hotspots around the world.

According to its Web site, the seven-year-old group is ''committed to getting in the way (and) challenging systems of domination and exploitation as Jesus Christ did in the first century.''

In 1992, corps members were arrested in Israel after entering a closed military zone to mark the 25th anniversary of that country's occupation of the West Bank.

The group has also been involved in non-violent protests in Chiapas, Mexico, Puerto Rico, and elsewhere in the world.

''The only side we take is on the side of justice,'' Pritchard said. ''If there is an injustice done and people are being oppressed, that's something we're opposed to.

''But we're not picking sides or deciding in advance who's the oppressor and who's being oppressed.''

In October, Christian Peacemakers led a two-hour occupation of an RCMP detachment in Guelph, Ont., to call for ''an end to racist policing,'' particularly in Burnt Church.

The corps claimed seven RCMP boats were among 150 non-natives boats that destroyed native lobster traps in Miramichi Bay, and accused the Mounties of doing nothing ''to stop the well-orchestrated hooliganism.''

Pritchard said the team in Burnt Church will be equipped with cameras, cellphones and laptop computers to report on any ''human rights abuses'' it might witness.

''If we're not able to stop it, then we can report it or report the threat,'' he said.

When asked if he's concerned non-natives won't appreciate their presence in the community, Pritchard replied: ''We've encountered that in our other projects elsewhere.

''If we have worked with one community that has been oppressed, then those who have been part of that oppression may not understand that initially,'' he said.

Two weeks ago, native officials walked away from the federal negotiating table and threatened to go fishing on their own terms.

Kathy Lambert, a councillor at Burnt Church, said at the time the reserve had given up on any hope of a satisfactory agreement with Ottawa over sharing the lobster fishery with non-native, commercial fishermen.

''We're just going to fish,'' she said. ''It's our communal right and we're going to exercise that right.''

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