Rae sets deadline for fishery settlement

Special to The Globe and Mail
Monday, September 18, 2000

NEGUAC, N.B. -- Facing an angry crowd of commercial fishermen yesterday, federal mediator Bob Rae said he has set a deadline of tomorrow to settle the native lobster dispute at Burnt Church, before he calls it quits.

He said he has submitted a plan to Ottawa and Mi'kmaq natives over fishing rights in New Brunswick's Miramichi Bay and has given them until tomorrow to respond. But he seemed frustrated with the lack of progress, and he told the crowd of more than 1,000 that he'll go home if a short-term agreement cannot be found.

"Mediation only works if you establish a sense of discipline. We are looking for a short-term practical solution here and it should not take that much time for us to find it," Mr. Rae said to the people crammed into an arena in the Acadian village of Neguac, near Burnt Church in northeastern New Brunswick.

"But mediation will never resolve the philosophical differences, only the practical ones. And if we can't resolve this immediate issue then there is no point in trying to bridge this."

Mr. Rae, the former Ontario premier, has been attempting to negotiate a peaceful end to this dispute and spent the last several days in New Brunswick meeting with the Burnt Church band, federal officials and the union representing non-native fishermen.

But the failure of negotiations would only serve to further ignite the already explosive situation at the Burnt Church reserve, underlined by the response of the angry non-native fishermen yesterday.

During a question and answer session in the meeting, lobster fisherman Fran*ois Breau told the crowd he supported the government's buy-back program that took lobster licences away from non-native families and handed them to his native neighbours. He held his tongue last fall, he said, when the Supreme Court of Canada directed the federal government to ensure natives had a greater share of the resource.

But he echoed the opinions of many gathered yesterday when he told a group of union and government officials that he cannot accept a native-run lobster fishery in Miramichi Bay.

Yesterday's rally, held on the first anniversary of the Marshall decision recognizing Mi'kmaq treaty rights to profit from hunting and fishing, was intended to give voice to the non-native commercial fishermen who have been watching in silent frustration as Burnt Church natives set traps in water just a few kilometres from their homes.

Mr. Rae said he has determined that a native-run fall fishery on Miramichi Bay is a threat to conservation and should not be allowed, but he added that natives need improved access to the local inshore fishery.

"I have come to the conclusion that it simply isn't possible for two commercial fisheries to exist separately because the stock won't accept it . . . and we have to find a way right now to reduce dramatically the number of traps in the water."

But Mr. Rae's conviction wasn't enough for the crowd. Many shouted angrily that all the native traps must be pulled before any settlement can be reached.

The fishermen and their families heckled any federal officials who tried to address them and shouted down a native man who nervously suggested that the fishery be jointly managed by the DFO and native bands.

The air was thick with hostility and the crowd often boiled over with insults and jeers when anyone suggested the federal government was looking after the interests of commercial fishermen.

"When we speak the truth we are labelled racist," Michelle Morrison, representing fishermen's wives, told the crowd. "I am not a racist. The government is teaching our children that people can break the law and get away with it."

The rally was organized by the Maritime Fishermen's Union, whose president, Ron Cormier, urged the crowd to be patient and work toward a peaceful end to the war over lobster.

He warned Mr. Rae that his membership would never accept a separate commercial native fishery, but reminded the fishermen and their families that Mi'kmaq treaty rights must be respected.

"You are furious with your institutions, and you will have a chance to tell your stories today," he said. "We want peace and reconciliation with our native people in the Miramichi . . . I would be hypocritical to call for peace if it meant more isolation and poverty for Burnt Church.

They have put themselves on the map. They will be fishermen and they will have a say in the fishery. I say to you and the Mi'kmaq people let's walk away from this deadlock and make our fishery work for everyone."