Ovide Mercredi jumps into fish war: `I've never seen a white man flee from Indians before'
More violence feared after minister bolts

Canadian Press
Tuesday, August 29, 2000

BURNT CHURCH, N.B. - A bid by Canada's Indian Affairs minister to end a native fishermen protest over the Atlantic lobster harvest ended in near-farce yesterday when he fled their reserve without addressing a public meeting as planned.

Nault abruptly left a long-anticipated meeting at the troubled Mi'kmaq reserve in northeastern New Brunswick yesterday, accompanied by shouts of ``coward'' and ``liar'' from angry natives who had been waiting to see him.

Nault refused to attend a public meeting that was open to the community and the news media.

It was hoped he would provide some direction in the search for a peaceful solution to the often violent dispute over native lobster fishing rights in Miramichi Bay.

He met privately with members of the band council, but said little as he emerged from the short, closed-door meeting and got into a waiting van.

``Have a nice day,'' Nault said as reporters asked why he wouldn't walk across the street to the public meeting. He said he tried to set up a meeting, but wouldn't elaborate.

``I've never seen a white man flee from Indians before,'' said Ovide Mercredi, former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, who is acting as an adviser at Burnt Church.

Burnt Church Chief Wilbur Dedam said Nault and council members didn't get a chance to talk about fishing. He said the encounter - the first visit by an Indian affairs minister to the Mi'kmaq community of about 1,300 - never got past discussions about the public meeting.

Dedam said Nault was angry when he discovered the news media would be present.

The chief admitted there may have been some ``miscommunication'' over the exact nature of the public session and who would be present.

But Nault's reasons for not attending the open meeting didn't carry much weight with native people who are looking for an olive branch from Ottawa.

``He fled the community; he fled the people,'' said Mercredi, who is advising national chief Matthew Coon Come on the explosive situation.

``These people have the right to hear what the government is going to say to them.''

Later yesterday, Nault issued a statement in which he expressed regret for not having spent longer in the native community.

``Unfortunately, my visit to Burnt Church this afternoon was . . . a missed opportunity. It was with regret that I left Burnt Church this afternoon after only a short time in the community.''

While Nault was in Moncton earlier in the day, he said he was ready to defend native interests in the lobster dispute, but stressed the rules will be enforced in the meantime.

``We have to maintain the rule of law but at the same time, we have to have level heads to be clear about what we're doing,'' Nault said.

Nault said his visit to the reserve was meant to serve as a signal to natives he was there to defend their interests ``but I can't do it if we're put in a situation of confrontation.''

Burnt Church has been a flashpoint in the dispute for several weeks and the site of a number of confrontations between natives and fisheries officials. More than 1,000 lobster traps have been seized, several people arrested and one fisheries officer injured when he was hit in the face by a rock.

Nycole Turmel, national president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, was in Burnt Church yesterday to plead for a settlement with Ottawa.

She said members on both sides of the issue are very worried about an escalation in the violence and she called for the intervention of Prime Minister Jean Chrétien.

``I hold government responsible, I hold Chrétien and his ministers responsible for the violence that is developing here,'' said Turmel, whose union represents both federal fisheries officers and native patrol officers who are trying to protect traps from seizure.

``We need a clear message first from Chrétien and from his ministers that they are ready to settle.''