Reserve's women set traps as Indians defy lobster curbs

AMY CAMERON and MARK REID
The Gazette (Montreal)
Tuesday, October 12, 1999

BURNT CHURCH, N.B. Women from the Burnt Church First Nation headed out into Miramichi Bay yesterday on a symbolic lobster-fishing expedition that underlined the band's defiance of Ottawa's decision to impose tight restrictions on its fishermen.

A loud cheer of celebration rang out as a boat left the Burnt Church wharf loaded with lobster traps and 12 women and one girl wrapped in warm plaids and yellow slickers. There was laughter as the women - some more adeptly than others - baited traps, unraveled buoy lines and tossed them overboard.

Several Indian fishermen, in two other boats, watched as their girlfriends, sisters and wives hauled traps in by hand to check their status. The traps contained only small lobsters which were, with great hoopla, thrown back into the ocean. ''We know about conservation,'' they yelled.

On Sunday, federal Fisheries Minister Herb Dhaliwal announced that Burnt Church was one of only two bands in the Maritimes to reject a voluntary moratorium on lobster fishing. More than 30 other bands will stay off the water for the next 30 days in order to work on an aboriginal fisheries plan.

Meanwhile, Dhaliwal said Burnt Church Indians will be able to continue fishing lobster until Oct. 30, but using only 600 traps within the limits of Miramichi Inner Bay.

The fact the rest of the country was celebrating Thanksgiving - a holiday traditionally filled with pleasant images of Indian and European settlers exchanging gifts - was not lost on the people of Burnt Church.

Dhaliwal's 600-trap limit was indeed a modern-day peace offering. But it was taken as an insult by people who have fought for centuries to reassert their aboriginal and treaty rights to hunt and fish.

This small community received international attention in recent weeks after a Supreme Court ruling stated that Micmac, Maliseet and Passamaquody Indians can make a moderate living from fishing and hunting - even in the off-season and without licenses - under a 1760 treaty.

The ruling led to conflict over the lobster fishery in northeastern New Brunswick, as Indian-set traps were destroyed by commercial fishermen.

Department of Fisheries and Oceans officials were to meet with the Burnt Church band council to hand out the band's communal fishing license and 600 tags, which are supposed to be affixed to Indian-set lobster traps.

Technically, the trap limit went into effect the moment Dhaliwal made his announcement. However, Andre-Marc Lanteigne, spokesman for the DFO in Halifax, said that Burnt Church fishermen will be given a short period to ready their tagged traps and choose who will do the fishing for the band.

Once those details are worked out, though, DFO enforcement officers are under orders to seize any trap that isn't tagged.

Top