Lobster season will test native, non-native relations

Canadian Press
Thursday, April 27, 2000

BURNT CHURCH, N.B. Lobster seasons have come and gone for generations in northern New Brunswick, but the one opening this weekend is, in a very real sense, a test fishery.

It will be a test of native and non-native fishermen to come to some sort of accommodation to share the resource.

It also will test the ability of the federal Fisheries Department to create guidelines for a working relationship between natives, who experience crushing and chronic unemployment, and non-natives, who traditionally reap the benefits of the ocean harvest.

It may even test the forces of law and order.

''Any activity on the water that is not authorized will be dealt with,'' said Bob Allain, spokesman for the federal Fisheries Department.

Ottawa's resolve to regulate the fishery is being tested by the Burnt Church First Nation on New Brunswick's Miramichi Bay, which, so far, has refused to sign an agreement governing fishing activities.

There was violence in Burnt Church last fall after the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in the Donald Marshall case that natives have a treaty right to fish for a moderate living.

Now, as Burnt Church fishermen prepare to take part in the commercial lobster season which begins Saturday, there are persistent fears of more confrontations.

''There are bad feelings,'' said Kathy Lambert, a councillor at the Burnt Church reserve, which has a population of about 1,300.

''The non-native fishermen are worried about their livelihood. But how about our livelihood? Eighty-five per cent of the people here are unemployed. It's a good feeling when you can go and work and earn a few bucks. I mean, we're not in there to get rich. A lot of natives just want to make that few bucks.''

The Fisheries Department has issued a communal licence to Burnt Church in the absence of an agreement. However, as late as Thursday, fisheries officials were still hopeful the defiant Mi'kmaq band would come onside.

Ottawa has been trying to hammer out deals with 34 First Nations affected by the Marshall decision.

To date, 13 bands have signed agreements, which include economic development incentives as well as training, boats and fishing gear. Six more bands have agreements in principle.

The Supreme Court found in Marshall that Mi'kmaq and Maliseet people have the right to earn a moderate livelihood from fishing, hunting and gathering based on 18th-century treaties.

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

Chief Robert Levi of the nearby Big Cove First Nation, the largest reserve in New Brunswick, said his band decided to sign a fishing agreement because it knew it would never get around the fact that the right is subject to federal regulation.

''We never like to sign on to anything,'' Levi said.

''After all, we've got the court ruling in our favour. But at the same time, the court says it's subject to regulation and we know by experience that's exactly what Ottawa is going to do. So we figured the best thing was to protect our interests and get as much out of it as we could for our people.''

Levi would not put a dollar figure on the Big Cove deal, but said its value was considerable.

In return for following federal fishing rules, the reserve gets several new boats, fishing gear, training and economic development money.

Lambert said people at Burnt Church believe their treaty rights need to be protected against limitations imposed by the federal government.

She said some Burnt Church fishermen will probably follow federal laws and get the required tags for their lobster traps.

Others, she said, will fish under what they consider to be a higher authority _ the rights their ancestors negotiated with the early settlers of what is now New Brunswick.

''The Department of Fisheries has to understand that our treaty rights are not for sale,'' she said.

Fisheries officials are warning they can seize lobster traps that do not have the proper tags. The tags are used to keep tabs on the lobster fishery.