More shooting as Fisheries moves in

Canadian Press
Monday, September 25, 2000

Burnt Church, N.B. – Shots rang out over the dark waters of Miramichi Bay early Monday as government vessels once again seized native lobster traps.

It wasn't immediately clear who fired the shots, but RCMP Sgt. Roger Somers said no one was hurt.

"A member heard three shots fired from the mainland," Sgt. Somers said. "Nobody was injured; no damage was done. It was around 5:30-5:45 (a.m. local time). They could have come from anywhere."

It was the third shooting incident in four days in the area.

But federal Fisheries officers returned to the government wharf at nearby Neguac, N.B., at dawn with dozens of traps aboard their vessels.

The seizure came after a tense afternoon on the Mi'kmaq reserve in northeastern New Brunswick.

Several dozen Mi'kmaq warriors, some brandishing baseball bats and golf clubs, assembled on the pier at Burnt Church. Some took to small boats and patrolled the area, returning before nightfall.

Band Chief Wilbur Dedam said any efforts by either enforcement officers or non-native fishermen to remove traps would be resisted.

"If they're going to take out those traps, we're going to defend those traps," Mr. Dedam said. "All our fishermen are doing is just trying to make a moderate livelihood and I'm not going to stop them."

The Fisheries Department, which has collected 926 native traps in recent days, estimated Sunday that at least 800 remain in the bay. The Mi'kmaq said the number is closer to 100.

Mr. Dedam said the $75 traps would be replaced once Fisheries was finished its work. He said there was a stockpile of traps donated by native and non-native supporters waiting to go into the water.

"See those?" he said, pointing to a pile behind a nearby house. "They've got my name on them."

The chief said there will be native traps in the water until the Mi'kmaq's self-declared season ends on Oct. 7.

Government boats - kept ashore by bad weather earlier in the day - were first deployed Sunday afternoon, apparently to prevent a rumoured armada of non-native vigilantes from entering the bay. The armada never showed up and, as darkness fell, the government vessels were gone and so were the warriors. The government returned early in the morning.

Michael Belliveau, executive director of the Maritime Fishermen's Union, denied rumours that a deal had been reached between the federal government and union members for them to stay away from the reserve.

"When they issue a closure, it's a closure," Mr. Belliveau said. "What we're all trying to guess is how they (Fisheries officials) are putting their operational plan into effect. People are very nervous, very hyper."

At one point Sunday, natives began erecting a barricade near the Burnt Church reserve after word came that non-natives were on the way. Police confiscated a gun from natives in a pickup, then returned it.

"He apologized for the delay and said thank you for your co-operation," said the owner, who identified himself only as John.

Also on Sunday, a non-native fisherman threatened TV camera crews on the government pier, but that was mild compared with the gunfire that erupted on the water last week.

A non-native boat was hit by a bullet on Friday morning, and three non-natives were arrested Saturday after shots were fired from a boat near Burnt Church. RCMP said charges were to be laid Monday or Tuesday.

Mr. Belliveau said such incidents don't necessarily involve his members.

"I think the important thing is that this is being wound down," he said. "They have to get those traps out of the water one way or the other. We said and the natives said the same thing Ñ when this thing is settled, we'll get back to dialogue and discussion and see what we can work out. We've always said a fishing plan will include everyone."

It appeared that band council members and some other natives were struggling to keep the warriors under control. The warriors established what they called a security zone around the bay's inner waters and threatened to stop anyone who crossed into it.

There was word the band had replaced the warriors' leader, James Ward, with Frank Thomas, a Mi'kmaq from Indian Brook, N.S., whose strategy is said to be more in line with the band council's.

But Mr. Dedam said he and his band were staying out of warrior affairs.

"I don't think I would interfere with the warriors," the chief said. "I'm only concentrating on the community myself. The warriors will look after who comes in here."

Mr. Ward said he and Mr. Thomas headed different groups.

"I head security in this area," Mr. Ward said, motioning to the main pier just inside the reserve. "Frank Thomas has a contingent of warriors that he works with himself. We're two different organizations completely."

Mr. Ward said weather and wind conditions were the only reason natives did not try to stop enforcement officers from seizing traps Thursday and Friday nights.

He said he was uncertain at one point what native leaders wanted the warriors to do. But he said it has been made clear to him that they want the warriors to defend the traps.

Chief Stewart Phillip, head of the union of B.C Indian chiefs and chief of a Penticton band, said a potential flashpoint in the simmering dispute would come if enforcement officers tried to pluck near-shore traps, some of which sit within metres of the coast.

Mr. Phillip is among a score of natives who have trickled into Burnt Church from across Canada. And he said more are willing to make the trip.

"This affects not only Burnt Church, but it affects native people across this country. It's a struggle for recognition of aboriginal and treaty rights."

He said the fundamental issue in the dispute is economics.

"Until such time as we have an equitable access to land and resources not only here in New Brunswick but in B.C., there will be continued conflict."