Burnt Church deal falls apart over boat

Special to The Globe and Mail; with a report from Mark MacKinnon
Thursday, September 21, 2000

BURNT CHURCH, N.B. -- A deal to end the native lobster dispute on Miramichi Bay has fallen apart because Ottawa and the Burnt Church band can't agree on how the plan should be executed, opening the door for another federal raid on the native fishing grounds.

Yesterday morning, natives and federal fisheries officers were expected to conduct a joint sweep of the bay, counting band traps and pulling unmarked gear from the waters off Burnt Church reserve.

It was part of a tentative deal brokered late Tuesday night by federal mediator Bob Rae, designed to appease the federal government and to placate angry non-native fishermen who were threatening to take the law into their own hands if mediation attempts failed.

But the plan collapsed early yesterday when Ottawa refused to budge on the band's demand for the return of its fisheries patrol vessel, The Trophy, which was seized in a raid last week.

Chief Wilbur Dedam of Burnt Church said his community has already agreed to shave two weeks off of its band-approved fishing season, consult with the union representing non-native fishermen about its lobster fishery, and work with Ottawa to reduce the number of native traps in the bay. He said he won't make any more concessions to the federal government, and now believes the mediation process is in jeopardy.

"The minister has publicly said our community is unreasonable, when it is, in fact, the minister himself who has not participated in a fair and just mediation process," Chief Dedam said. "He has angered the non-native fishermen by inflating the number of native traps in the water and for this, we are deeply concerned."

Burnt Church natives have been setting traps off the coast of northeastern New Brunswick since Aug. 10, in a controversial fall lobster fishery operating outside Ottawa's approved seasons.

DFO regional director-general Jim Jones said the native patrol vessel is just one of many sticking points in the negotiations, and said the band is asking for much more than Ottawa is willing to give.

The fall fishery has angered the roughly 250 non-native commercial fishermen who make their living from the bay during the spring lobster season, and who have been gathering near Burnt Church during the past few days threatening vigilante action on the water.

Several dozen fishermen met with their union leaders at a hotel in Miramichi yesterday afternoon, and emerged angry with the message they received. Many of the fishermen claim they were offered cash compensation if they allowed the natives to fish out the rest of their season in peace.

"Everyone has tried their best during the last 24 hours to disengage this, but mediation as it seems right now is not the best because the wrong thing is on everybody's table," said Mike Belliveau, executive director of the Maritime Fishermens' Union.

In Ottawa, Fisheries Minister Herb Dhaliwal said his patience is at an end if the Burnt Church band doesn't begin removing traps. "I think if we don't have this resolved very quickly, I've said I'll take action and I will."