Fisheries settlement a longshot, locals say
Today's deadline increases tensions

With reports from Kevin Cox in Halifax and Shawn McCarthy in Ottawa.
Tuesday, September 19, 2000

BURNT CHURCH, N.B. -- People who live along the shores of Miramichi Bay are bracing for more violence on the water today as federal mediator Bob Rae's deadline for resolving the lobster dispute approaches with no deal in sight.

Mr. Rae said he'll abandon his job at 5 p.m. local time today if Ottawa and Burnt Church natives can't agree on a short-term plan to end the war on the water.

Burnt Church fishermen continued to set traps yesterday, and community leaders met with Ovide Mercredi, the former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, to discuss their options.

Federal Fisheries Minister Herb Dhaliwal said he'll respect Mr. Rae's deadline but will send his officers to seize native boats and traps if the Burnt Church fishing continues.

"If we can't come to an agreement on this, I think it will be a lost opportunity," he said from Ottawa yesterday. "At the end of the day I have to enforce the law. There is illegal fishing happening right now in the bay and I will take enforcement action if I think it's necessary. . . . I am prepared to give the mediation a chance to work, but at the end of the day I will uphold the law; Canadians expect me to uphold the law."

He also said that conservation has priority. "The traps that are out there now are illegal and unauthorized," he said.

Today's deadline adds urgency to an already tense conflict between Burnt Church natives and the non-native commercial fishermen in neighbouring communities, especially those who fish in the waters off Neguac, a small Acadian village about nine kilometres north of Burnt Church.

The commercial lobster season is over, and many are outraged that Ottawa has failed to stop the Burnt Church natives from fishing.

The police have been gathering on the highway between Neguac and Burnt Church since this conflict began five weeks ago, and clusters of RCMP cruisers are on every village street corner.

RCMP spokesman Sergeant Roger Somers said he's praying for a quick resolution to the dispute and fears the worst if none is reached today.

"I cannot bring the army here. We're just waiting and hoping that the mediation will work," he said. "I'm worried about what will happen."