Tensions simmer in East Coast fish feud: Minister threatens to shut fishery if violence continues

The Gazette (Montreal)
Tuesday, October 5, 1999

BURNT CHURCH, N.B. Indian warriors in combat fatigues patroled the local wharf in shifts yesterday, as the drama over the backlash to a Supreme Court ruling upholding ancient aboriginal fishing rights continued to heighten.

The tension was palpable as stakeholders prepared to meet today in search of a solution after a weekend of violence that saw non-Indian fishermen destroy thousands of lobster traps set by aboriginals in northeastern New Brunswick.

Last night, a vacant summer home owned by a non-Indian near the Burnt Church Reserve went up in flames in what police said was a deliberately set blaze, though it was not immediately clear whether the incident was related to the fishing controversy.

The Indians of the Burnt Church Reserve, who were most affected by Sunday's attacks, appeared set to defy any attempt by Ottawa to close down the fishery or get a suspension of last month's Supreme Court ruling, which gave some of them the right to fish in the off-season without licenses. Licensed non-Indian fishermen are still waiting for their season to open.

If the Chretien government follows through on such talk, ''I think most of our people will go fishing anyway,'' said Alex Dedam, controler of the Burnt Church reserve. They would do so on the basis of their treaty rights, which the Supreme Court upheld, and ''we'll see what happens,'' he added.

Despite fears of more clashes, aboriginal fishermen continued to fish yesterday, asking the RCMP for protection in the event of any conflicts.

The Indian warriors who guarded fishing boats were unarmed. ''This is not Oka,'' said Dedam. ''The chief asked them to play a peacekeeping role to ensure the safety of people exercising their rights under the treaty.''

Dedam said Mohawks from Quebec offered to provide additional security to the band, but were told they were not needed at this time.

Last night, warriors patroled the wharf area in pickup trucks while others warmed themselves by an outdoor fire. While RCMP officers came and went, fires were also being tended in a handful of teepees near the water, which glowed like lanterns in the dark.

Federal Fisheries Minister Herb Dhaliwal is expected to meet today with Indian and non-Indian fishermen and provincial ministers, with the aim of finding a solution to the crisis.

Yesterday, he threatened to shut down the East Coast lobster fishery altogether if a compromise is not reached ''in the next few days'' to end violence between Indians and non- Indians.

On Sunday, at least 100 fishermen vandalized lobster traps set by Indians and freed their catches. Three fish plants accused of handling Indian- caught lobster were vandalized.

Three Indians were also injured in confrontations with non-Indians. On the reserve, there were threats that if charges aren't laid, people would take it upon themselves to get even. Several trucks owned by non-Indians were smashed up or set ablaze.

Dhaliwal warned yesterday that the Supreme Court ruling recognizing the right of Indians to fish and hunt during the off-season does not mean that they can now flout all fisheries laws.

But Ottawa's apparent failure to prepare for fallout from the ruling has created a credibility problem for Dhaliwal, who is jokingly referred to by some in the region as ''Dilly-dallywall.''

''I don't think Dhaliwal knows what he's doing,'' said Dedam, who added that Ottawa has been sending ''mixed messages.''

Prime Minister Jean Chretien suggested earlier yesterday that his government might ask the Supreme Court to stay its Sept. 19 ruling, which upheld a 1760 treaty, until the issues can be worked out.

''It was disturbing,'' said Dedam. ''Most of the people were shocked to hear what the prime minister said.''

Any move to use legal or parliamentary avenues to suspend the ruling would send a dark message, said chief Lawrence Paul, co-chairman of the Atlantic Policy Congress of First Nations chiefs.

''It would show a further injustice,'' Paul said yesterday in advance of today's emergency meeting of the congress chiefs in Halifax to seek a consensus on how best to calm tensions in the Atlantic fishery.

''The eyes of the world are watching what Canada does now,'' Paul said from Truro, N.S.

He suggested that if the chiefs do not agree on a unified strategy before meeting with Dhaliwal, Ottawa may go ahead and get the ruling suspended, and order all boats off the water.

''We would have to respect that,'' Paul said bitterly. ''We don't have the Russian army backing us. But it would be a dismal day for Canada.''

Dedam said that a self-imposed fishing moratorium had been discussed among the Burnt Church band, which lives in an economically depressed area, but that such a measure was ruled out. ''They felt they had waited too long for this ruling,'' he said.

In Moncton, N.B, non-Indian fishing groups met with federal fisheries officials yesterday in a bid to find a workable solution, said Ken Clark, a lobster fisherman and city councilor for Miramichi, N.B.

He decried Sunday's violence near Burnt Church, two hours northeast of Moncton. But Clark said the aim was to underscore Ottawa's failure ''to look closer at the situation.

''To that end, as terrible as it was, it succeeded.''

Clark, who spoke as an independent non-Indian fisherman at yesterday's meetings in Moncton, said the discussions were aimed at ''negotiating an agreement with native fishers to get the traps out of the water and subject them to similar restraints faced by commercial fishers.''