Native fishery talks collapse as mediator leaves

Globe and Mail Update with Canadian Press
Thursday, September 21, 2000

It was less than a day ago that Bob Rae, the mediator in the Burnt Church fisheries dispute, declared that there had been "a signficant development," that together, the natives and officials would strive to pull the traps and move toward peace.

But Wednesday night, his message was different, and it was clear.

"The parties are too far apart for mediation."

And so he left.

The former Ontario premier drove out of Burnt Church after a long day of talks with all sides in the dispute Wednesday, headed to Moncton, N.B., where he would catch a flight to Toronto.

He left the door open for a possible return if there is a breakthrough in the dispute, which seemed headed toward the seizure of more native lobster traps by fisheries officers.

"Despite my best efforts it's pretty clear the government and the fishermen's union have decided they cannot accept the band's position," Mr. Rae said.

"We've run out of time."

"It's not going anywhere," Chief Wilbur Dedam said about the talks a few hours before Mr. Rae's announcement. "Two parties have to agree, but the willingness isn't there on the part of government."

Federal Fisheries Minister Herb Dhaliwal "hasn't budged at all," the chief said.

On Tuesday night, Mr. Rae said native leaders proposed that the band and federal officials conduct a joint count Wednesday of traps in the water off Burnt Church and "that they are prepared to remove traps from the water at that time.

"It is important to emphasize that this is a positive development and will contribute to an ultimate settlement," he said at the time.

After Mr. Rae's departure was announced, Karen Somerville, spokeswoman for the Burnt Church Band, said in an interview that the count and removal proposed by the mediator never happened.

She said DFO officers suggested Wednesday morning that the count "was better served between us and the RCMP," she said.

"They know we have a not very good relationship with the RCMP. It threw us for a loop."

Ms. Somerville said the Mi'kmaq fishermen were concerned about untagged lobster traps and were committed to removing them, but it was difficult since a boat belonging to the natives had been seized this week.

"We had faith and trust on the board at one point but that's been severely damaged."

She said the traps would all be removed by Oct. 1.

In a letter addressed to Chief Dedam and the band council released late Wednesday evening, the DFO said data from surveys conducted in previous years and catch statistics gained through recent trap monitoring showed the natives were fishing far in excess of what was necessary for ceremonial and social purposes.

The DFO estimated the Burnt Church catch was 74,840 kilograms (165,000 pounds), which was much higher than the 18,140 kilograms (40,000 pounds) the band is licensed to catch during the fall fishery. The numbers were calculated from Sept. 15.

"At the current rate of exploitation, conservation is a serious concern in the local area. This situation cannot continue."

The DFO estimated that even if the natives pull out their traps Oct. 1, the catch would total 78,000 kilograms (172,000 pounds).

Mr. Dhaliwal also sent a letter to the natives, saying that while he acknowledged their plan to remove their traps by Oct. 1, he denounced the natives' own plan to do a removal of tagged traps as early as Wednesday.

"You have provided no assurance that fishing effort will be substantially reduced," he wrote. "Specifically, there is no guarantee that the removal of untagged traps will lead to a substantial reduction in fishing effort to address conservation concerns. In fact, there is evidence today that your community's fishers are increasing the number of traps in the water."

Ovide Mercredi, former chief of the Assembly of First Nations, was on the reserve and delivered an emotional appeal for peace.

He said the answer was in prayer.

"I'm calling on the Canadian people to pray for this community and for their politicians so they use reason, not violence," he said.

Mr. Mercredi said support for the Burnt Church cause was growing across the country. The assembly had contacted chiefs for support.

"They're on standby from the AFN for non-violent political action across the country."

Mr. Mercredi's bleak assessment came as non-native fishermen claimed the federal government had proposed paying them to stay out of the volatile dispute in northeastern New Brunswick.

Several commercial fishermen said federal officials floated an offer through their union of from $10,000 to $12,000 a person to not haul native traps from Miramichi Bay.

The fishermen rejected it.

"It's a joke," said Danny Noel, a fisherman from Val-Comeau, N.B.

"Why don't they give $10,000 to everyone on the reserve to stop them fishing?"

Another fisherman told ATV News: "We're not that poor yet. We still got something to eat."

Mike Belliveau, spokesman for the Maritime Fishermen's Union, believed the payment proposal came from Rae, not the federal government.

"The fishermen made it clear the issue isn't money, it's the future of the fishery," the union leader said.

Non-native fishermen warned they would take matters into their own hands within a week unless Ottawa stopped the native fishing immediately.

"The traps have to be out of there and no more fishing," said Robert Breau, a commercial fisherman from Tabusintac, N.B.

"The rules are there. The Indians have to follow them."

Mr. Dedam said he was tiring of threats from non-natives.

"They have already earned their livelihood. They should just leave us alone," he said.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans couldn't be reached to confirm the payment offer, which came as all sides in the mess met separately all day to discuss their next move.

A peaceful settlement appeared imminent late Tuesday when native leaders proposed that the band and federal officials conduct a joint count of native traps in the bay.

The band also offered to remove some traps in the water, a move Rae called a "significant development."

The natives agreed to do the joint count with the RCMP but wanted the Fisheries Department to first return several boats seized during earlier raids.

The natives said DFO refused that request and the count never took place.

In Ottawa, Mr. Dhaliwal said his patience was wearing thin and warned he would take action if a settlement wasn't reached.

"I've made every effort but I can tell you my patience is at an end and I think that if we don't have this resolved very quickly, I said I'll take action and I will," he said.

Mr. Dhaliwal called the native proposal to reduce the number of traps in the water "progress," but said "we have to watch to make sure this is followed up by action."

Commercial fishermen say that a native fall lobster fishery that operates when no one else is permitted to fish could destroy lucrative stocks.