Defiant native fishermen test Ottawa's resolve in lobster fishery

Canadian Press
Sunday, May 7, 2000

BURNT CHURCH, N.B. Native fishermen in northern New Brunswick are defying federal regulations and openly setting traps that break Ottawa's rules for the lobster fishery.

Traps were seized on Saturday but federal fisheries officers decided to bide their time on Sunday as a small boat carrying three aboriginal women headed out on to the choppy waters of Miramichi Bay to set lobster traps marked with tags issued by the Burnt Church First Nation.

One of the fishers, who goes by the Mi'kmaq name, Miigam'agan, said the women of the reserve intend to take their place alongside the men in defending the treaty right to fish for a moderate living.

''The women in the community are going to continue fishing,'' Miigam'agan said after she came ashore. ''We feel it's our inherent right and we're not going to let anyone stop us.''

Although the 10 traps set on Sunday were not seized, native fishermen believe it's only a matter of time before officers from the Department of Fisheries scoop up the wooden pots and impound them.

Fisheries spokesman Andre-Marc Lanteigne confirmed Sunday the traps will be taken.

''Unauthorized fishing will not be accepted,'' he said.

''At the appropriate time we will be removing those traps. The last thing we want is a confrontation, but it's important that the Fisheries Act is upheld.''

The lack of confrontation on Sunday was in marked contrast to Saturday when fisheries officers moved quickly to seize 10 traps that Burnt Church fishermen set in a test of Ottawa's resolve and their treaty rights.

DFO says the traps are illegal because they do not carry tags issued by the department. The native band is using its own tags on as part of its independent fisheries management program.

Two members of the Christian Peacemaker Team, who are in Burnt Church to act as intermediaries on behalf of native fishermen, were briefly arrested after they tried to prevent the traps from being confiscated. They face possible charges of obstructing peace officers.

''What kind of peace officer takes traps from fishermen who are pursuing their lawful treaty right?'' asked Father Bob Holmes of Toronto, one of the peacemakers who was arrested.

''That is no way to keep the peace.''

James Ward, a member of the Burnt Church First Nation and an architect of the reserve's management plan, said the band is trying to force a resolution to clear the way for out-of-season fishing by natives in the fall.

There was violence last fall when Burnt Church natives set traps during the closed season following the Supreme Court of Canada decision in the case of Nova Scotia native, Donald Marshall Jr.

The Supreme Court ruled that the Mi'kmaq and Maliseet people have a treaty right to earn a moderate living from fishing, hunting and gathering.

However, a later clarification by the court said that right is subject to federal regulation.

Ward said Burnt Church wants to make its own regulations, and it wants more people to be allowed to fish under a federally-issued, communal licence.

At the moment, federal rules allow for 17 commercial licences at Burnt Church and 5,100 traps. Ward said the reserve wants the right to set up to 15,000 traps.

''We have to make a stand and we have to make it now,'' he said.

''We have to draw that line in the sand and say, 'Listen, we're protecting our treaty rights and we're not going to allow for some agreements to be signed that would infringe on our treaty rights.''

Lanteigne said efforts to negotiate an agreement with Burnt Church are stalled.

He said the band is split. There are 13 commercial fishermen from the reserve currently setting traps under DFO regulations.

''Unfortunately, the community has been extremely divided and it's extremely difficult to have a good productive dialogue,'' he said.