Hopes for fishing deal fade as Dhaliwal and natives cancel meeting

Canadian Press
Wednesday, June 7, 2000

MIRAMICHI, N.B. (CP) _ Ottawa and the defiant Burnt Church First Nation are
so far apart over fishing rights, they can't even agree to meet.

Federal Fisheries Minister Herb Dhaliwal was near Burnt Church in northern
New Brunswick on Wednesday, but a planned meeting with band officials was
abruptly called off.

Dhaliwal said he received a phone call from a band councillor informing him
that Chief Wilbur Dedam and other council members would not attend the
meeting and, therefore, discussions at this time wouldn't be productive.

''I'm open to meeting, but we had a call from councillor Chris Bonnell and
the chief said he's not interested in attending,'' Dhaliwal told reporters
as he arrived at the airport in Miramichi, N.B., for an international
salmon conference.

''We only want to have meetings if they can be productive. If they say this
is not productive and they want to reschedule, I'll honour that request.''

Nevertheless, a group of people from Burnt Church had hoped to meet with
the minister and present him with a document outlining their reasons for
continuing to defy Ottawa's regulations in the Miramichi Bay lobster
fishery.

Band member James Ward, author of the reserve's own fisheries management
plan, said it was disrespectful of Dhaliwal not to meet with the Burnt
Church community.

''He keeps talking about having a responsible, positive dialogue,'' said
Ward. ''This was a clear opportunity for him to come down and address our
concerns right in our community and he chose not to. So he's the one being
irresponsible.''

The Mi'kmaq reserve and federal fisheries officials have been involved in a
high stakes cat-and-mouse game since the lobster season opened in late
April.

The band has refused to sign an interim fishing agreement with Ottawa,
saying it violates aboriginal treaty rights. Instead, it has developed its
own plan and Burnt Church fishermen have been setting lobster traps marked
with reserve tags.

However, the federal Fisheries Department does not recognize the tags and
fisheries officers have been seizing the native traps. That has made
native fishermen angrier, and they keep setting more traps.

Ward said unless there's a solution soon, there could be serious trouble
when natives begin fishing this fall outside the commercial season.

''Time is running out between now and the fall fishery,'' said Ward.

''If there was a chance for some meaningful dialogue, the opportunity would
have been today for the minister to show up in Burnt Church and say, 'Is
there something we can look at.' But he chose not to.''

There was violence last fall when Burnt Church natives set traps following
the Supreme Court of Canada decision in the Donald Marshall Jr. case.

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

But when natives set traps out of season in Miramichi Bay, angry non-native
fishermen cut and destroyed the native traps. Several homes and buildings,
belonging to natives and non-natives, were burned as people clashed over
the inflammatory issue of rights and privileges.

A subsequent clarification by the high court said treaty rights are subject
to federal regulation, and that is why Dhaliwal is standing his ground.

''Some members on the council feel that I do not have the authority to
regulate the fishery and that is fundamentally wrong,'' said the minister.

''Clearly, the Supreme Court of Canada said I do have the authority to
regulate and I take that mandate very seriously.''

Dhaliwal said the situation at Burnt Church is complicated by an apparent
split in the community. Some band members want to sign an agreement with
Ottawa, while some fishermen are catching lobster under federal
regulations.

''It's not always easy to deal with people who don't have a united view,''
he said.

Of the 34 Mi'kmaq and Maliseet bands eligible for fisheries agreements,
Dhaliwal said 23 have signed deals or agreements-in-principle.

Top