30 natives occupy fisheries office
Women, children protest Miramichi Bay raids, arrests
Thursday, September 14, 2000
BURNT CHURCH, N.B. - About 30 native women and children occupied a federal Fisheries Department office for 2 1/2 hours yesterday, demanding the return of seized lobster traps.
The natives from the Burnt Church reserve arrived at the office in nearby Tracadie-Sheila in a convoy of pickup trucks. They then walked inside and asked the secretaries for the traps the department seized over the past five weeks.
``We're going to get our traps one way or the other,'' said Martina Parker, one of the protesters.
Fisheries officers confiscated at least 2,000 traps and about 10 boats and arrested dozens of people on fisheries violations and criminal charges in the weeks since the latest hostilities began on Miramichi Bay. On Tuesday, 16 people were arrested, including Wilbur Dedam, chief of the Burnt Church reserve. Four boats were also seized.
Under a band management plan, every man, woman and child in Burnt Church is entitled to four lobster traps. Protester Gail Paul said the band badly needs the equipment to keep fishing. ``We stand by our treaty rights,'' she said.
The natives occupying the office yesterday were told they had to fill out forms claiming ownership of the traps, then wait a month to get them back. However, anyone who claims ownership could be charged with illegal fishing.
Most ended up signing and left peacefully.
Karen Somerville, spokesperson for the Burnt Church First Nation, said yesterday the latest confrontation on Miramichi Bay between police, fisheries officers and native fishermen hadn't derailed mediation prospects .
However, late in the day the band announced it was ending ``any dialogue or relationship'' with the Mounties over its involvement in the arrests.
The band said the RCMP failed to protect the community or ``provide a calming professional presence during these difficult times.''
The RCMP had earlier offered to act as a neutral facilitator to get the dispute settled.
``Personally, my view of neutral facilitation does not include having assault rifles pointed at me, nor does it include tear gas and the deliberate overturning of boats,'' Dedam said.
Former Ontario premier Bob Rae was to begin mediation efforts later this week. But the process appeared jeopardized by the arrest of the 16 native fishermen. Four boats were also seized.
Rae declined comment on the dispute yesterday, but a secretary in his Toronto law office said he was heading to Burnt Church to continue his mediation effort.
Federal Fisheries Minister Herb Dhaliwal was hopeful Rae will be able to bring a peaceful end to the dispute.
``I have a lot of confidence in Bob Rae,'' Dhaliwal said in Ottawa. ``If anybody can bring some peace to this situation, he can.
``But he needs the co-operation of everyone, and he needs the situation where they don't continue to escalate the situation by putting more and more traps out there.''
Somerville said the band has already met with Rae and is ``prepared to accept the recommendations that he makes.''
The Burnt Church band has been lobster fishing since early August under its own management plan. The fisheries department doesn't recognize the band plan and considers the native fishery unauthorized.
The Supreme Court of Canada ruled last year that natives have a treaty right to earn a moderate living from fishing. Burnt Church natives insist that right takes precedence over the federal right to regulate Canada's fishing industry.
Somerville said the reserve wants a public inquiry into the way the RCMP and the fisheries department have conducted themselves. Native boats have been swamped and sunk, including one on Tuesday that overturned, and both fisheries officers and natives have been hurt.