No deal in sight to settle dispute over native lobster fishery

Canadian Press
Thursday, May 18, 2000

FREDERICTON (CP) _ Native chiefs and fisheries officials have failed once again to reach consensus on which right takes precedence in the valuable lobster fishery: the aboriginal treaty right to fish or the federal right to regulate.

The Atlantic Policy Congress of First Nation Chiefs met with fisheries officials in Fredericton on Thursday, but there was no movement on the issues that have prevented several aboriginal communities from signing fishing agreements with Ottawa.

''We remain far apart,'' said Alex Dedam, an adviser at the Burnt Church First Nation in New Brunswick where fishermen continue to set traps in defiance of the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans, or DFO.

''We're talking access, but we're just getting tokenism from DFO at the moment.''

So far, fisheries officials have seized 38 unauthorized lobster traps at the reserve.

Burnt Church has devised its own management plan for the lucrative lobster fishery and is issuing its own tags for traps. But federal officials refuse to recognize the band tags and are insisting a government-controlled fishery is essential to good management and conservation.

Len Tomah, the representative for New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island on the Assembly of First Nations, said it will probably take more court decisions to finally get the rights issue settled.

Tomah said many natives believe the Supreme Court of Canada decision in the Donald Marshall case is not being respected by the federal government.

The Marshall decision stated that the Mi'kmaq and Maliseet people of Atlantic Canada have a treaty right to hunt, fish and gather for a moderate livelihood.

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

''The Fisheries Department is coming up with the position and the direction they want to see achieved and keeping the First Nation people under its thumb and under its control,'' Tomah said.

''It's not right or fair. In all likelihood, the department will see other cases coming forward as a result of not being respectful of the Marshall decision.''

Fisheries officials are trying to get bands to sign agreements and fish under DFO regulations. Many First Nation communities have signed, lured by the promise of economic development money and fishing gear, but several, including Burnt Church, have refused.

''The community is basically saying, 'We won't sign the agreement because
it would mean eroding, even selling, our treaty rights,' '' Dedam said.

Tomah said a number of the chiefs who have signed fishing agreements complained Thursday that the fishing gear they've been given under the deal is substandard.

''There is faulty gear out there and the DFO officials were told that needs to be corrected,'' Tomah said. ''I mean, you wouldn't give a carpenter the tools of a plumber, and that's the situation we're faced with.''

He said the officials agreed to look into the complaint.