Shooting alleged in fish dispute

With reports from Mark MacKinnon in Ottawa; and Caroline Alphonso in Vancouver.; Deborah Nobes is a freelance writer.
The Globe and Mail
Saturday, September 23, 2000

BURNT CHURCH, N.B. -- As the Mi'kmaq people of Burnt Church gathered to pray for peace yesterday, the crew of a commercial fishing boat said their boat was rammed and fired upon by a group of native fishermen.

The RCMP is investigating the alleged shooting, which would be the first direct clash between native and commercial fishermen since the Mi'kmaq began defying federal fishing regulations and set hundreds of lobster traps in Miramichi Bay in early August.

The charge is an indication of the growing tension in the region as commercial fishermen demand that the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans make good on its vow to end the native lobster fishery. Early yesterday, DFO said it had seized 113 traps in what a spokesperson said was part of "routine surveillance.".

A member of the four-person crew of the Gulf Mermaid, a commercial fishing boat based in Neguac, said the fishermen went out on the water to see if DFO had removed native traps as federal Fisheries Minister Herb Dhaliwal had promised earlier in the week.

He said the native boat tried to ram the commercial vessel twice.

"Then they shot off flares and one landed in the boat . . . once we got out of range of the flares they came at the boat with a rifle and fired a shot that went right through the wheelhouse and broke off the fellow's toilet," the crew member told CTV News.

He said the atmosphere in Neguac yesterday was very tense as commercial fishermen angrily demanded DFO pull the native traps out of the water.

On Thursday, Mr. Dhaliwal ordered the native fishery closed and said enforcement measures would follow. DFO insists the natives are fishing as many as 2,000 traps and damaging the lobster stocks by fishing out of season and without DFO licences.

The Mi'kmaq say they are fishing only 500 traps and insist that a Supreme Court of Canada decision last year affirmed their treaty right to manage their own fishery.

"There better be something done or there's going to be a civil war," the crew member said. "They made the first move. We can't stand back and let them have a free-for-all."

The Burnt Church natives got some support yesterday when about 50 native protesters chanting and beating on drums blocked an intersection outside the DFO office in Vancouver.

"Stop burning Burnt Church," said a protester as she began burning an upside-down Canadian flag. "Canada, you should be ashamed of yourselves, the way you treat indigenous people."

They demanded that Mr. Dhaliwal resign and that DFO return all seized lobster traps and boats to the Burnt Church band. They later moved inside the building, but were blocked from entering the office.

Native chiefs in northern Ontario and Manitoba are also throwing their support behind the Mi'kmaq of Burnt Church.

Forty-nine communities have agreed to raise money for legal fees, write letters of support and travel to the troubled New Brunswick community to express solidarity in the conflict.

Mr. Dhaliwal said he would not meet with natives so long as the band continues to fish illegally. He will meet with the band, he said, only after all lobster traps are removed from Miramichi Bay, which is closed to commercial fishing.

In Quebec, the Kahnawake Mohawk band council said any attack on Burnt Church natives will be regarded as an attack on all natives. Mohawks marched yesterday afternoon on Highway 138 in Quebec in a show of support for Burnt Church. Traffic wasn't disrupted on the major artery as some Mohawks drove along with Warrior flags flying from their cars.

Former Assembly of First Nations national chief Ovide Mercredi, now an adviser to current chief Matthew Coon Come, said the situation is so tense that individual acts of violence could lead to a larger conflict.

He compared the situation to that of Oka in 1990 and Gustafsen Lake in 1993.

Burnt Church Chief Wilbur Dedam said he condemned any act of violence.

"We ask our non-native neighbours to remain calm with us and to exercise good will, trust and good faith and allow the RCMP to conduct a thorough investigation into this matter," he said.

Mr. Dedam said the native boat accused of being involved in the incident was counting lobster traps in the bay at the time.

Leo Bartibogue, a Burnt Church native-fishery officer and fisherman pulled in a dozen traps yesterday to protect them from being seized.