Beyond Burnt Church: the lobster war escalates into a national debate over native traditions and special rights

Monday, October 18, 1999

The longer the talks dragged on in a Halifax hotel last week, the more the pressure weighed on Wilbur Dedam, chief of the Burnt Church Mi'kmaq reserve in New Brunswick. The message from his angry band members back home was unequivocal: even if it would lead to peace in the escalating East Coast lobster dispute, they had no intention of pulling their traps from Miramichi Bay. But the lobbying was intense inside the stuffy meeting room where the region's Mi'kmaq chiefs gathered with federal Fisheries Minister Herb Dhaliwal. By mid-afternoon, 25 of them had heeded the minister's call for a self-imposed 30-day moratorium on lobster fishing. But 10 chiefs continued to resist the compromise.

In hallways and the hotel's back alley, native leaders and federal officials huddled with Burnt Church council members, trying to strike a deal that Dedam and the nine other holdout chiefs could support. Through all the arm-twisting, Dedam stood firm. At one point, he started to leave the meeting, saying his position was not going to change. But he decided to stay at the table. And when Mi'kmaq Grand Chief Ben Sylliboy and colleague Frank Thomas of the Mi'kmaq Warriors Society called for a truce before the violence worsened, he reluctantly agreed to ask his people to stop fishing. "It will," he told the chiefs, "be a hard sell."

If not downright impossible. By week's end, the agreement seemed on the verge of collapse and Dhaliwal was considering a moratorium on the entire fishery. Natives in Burnt Church, where the fishing dispute has resulted in threats, violence and destruction of both native and non-native property, were in no mood for compromise. They stopped fishing long enough to tell Dedam that, regardless of what the grand chief had agreed to, they would continue to stay out on the water. Fishermen from other East Coast bands also threatened to defy the moratorium as did some non-natives, angry that such a deal might keep them from setting their traps when the winter lobster season is scheduled to open this week. However, high winds and bad weather on Saturday, the moratorium's first day, kept all but a handful of fishers ashore.

Meanwhile, critics lashed out at Ottawa, saying the federal government had been woefully unprepared for the Sept. 17 Supreme Court of Canada ruling that East Coast natives had year-round fishing rights. The impact of that decision also spread to British Columbia, where some bands said the ruling applies, as well, to their salmon-fishing rights. At the same time, federal officials contemplated an unsettling array of potential further flare-ups in aboriginal affairs. The common denominator: a growing critical reaction, largely led by the Reform party, to alleged special rights being won or claimed by native groups. Soon after this week's return of Parliament, the Chretien government is expected to table a bill to ratify the controversial land-claim deal with British Columbia's Nisga'a Nation. Critics insist the agreement is too costly -- about $ 190 million over 15 years to an aboriginal group numbering about 5,000. In Alberta, the Treaty 8 native group has launched a legal challenge in the Federal Court of Canada, claiming they are exempt from paying taxes even when they live off reserves (the Canadian Taxpayers Federation is seeking intervenor status in the case, arguing that "all Canadians should be treated equally under the law"). And the Kahnawake Mohawk Nation, 30 km south of Montreal, has announced plans to license an Internet gambling operation on its reserve, a move that raises questions about the application of gaming and tax laws on reserves.

For now, though, the lobster war is the centre of attention. Both natives and non-natives have suffered in the dispute. Last week, two trucks owned by white fishermen were torched on a dock in Burnt Church; arsonists also set a summer cottage owned by a non-native family ablaze. And for the Mi'kmaq, each day seems to have brought a new outrage. At week's end, the RCMP had still not made any arrests after a flotilla of angry white fishermen took to the water on Oct. 3 in Miramichi Bay to cut the lines of an estimated 3,500 lobster pots placed by aboriginals. On the same day, about 100 non-natives stormed three local processing plants suspected of buying lobsters from aboriginals. In addition, a sacred native ceremonial arbour was burned to the ground in Burnt Church -- where three Mi'kmaq men ended up in hospital after their truck was rammed by a vehicle driven by non-natives. Across the Bay of Fundy, in Yarmouth, N.S., a lobster boat owned by a non-status native was sunk.

Non-native lobster fishermen argue that their real concern is conservation -- and that the Supreme Court decision would ruin their industry by giving year-round access to hundreds of new fishermen. "No one should be fishing out of season," stressed Don Cunningham, president of the West Nova Fishermen's Coalition, which represents about 250 fishermen in the Yarmouth area. "There is no way this resource can be fished all year and stand it." Mi'kmaq leaders say that about 2,000 native fishermen may ultimately want to exercise their newfound right. But as of last week, they estimated that the entire native lobster fishing fleet consisted of just 217 boats.

Natives have their own explanation for all the bitterness being directed their way. They say the feud is partly about greed: non-native fishermen want to limit competition in an industry where it is possible to net $ 100,000 a year for just a few months' work. That naturally evokes bitterness in Mi'kmaq communities overwhelmed by high unemployment rates. But most natives suspect that the nasty dispute has little to do with fishing. "It is hard to believe this is not about racism," Lawrence Paul, chairman of the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi'kmaq Chiefs, said last week.

Natives are not used to having the upper hand in Atlantic Canada. European settlers in Newfound-land wiped out the Beothuck Indians. In the mid-1700s, Edward Cornwallis, Halifax's English founder, put a price on Mi'kmaq scalps -- setting the stage for a confrontation some 250 years later, when native leaders objected to a plan by Halifax Mayor Walter Fitzgerald to honour Cornwallis during celebrations marking the anniversary of the city's birth earlier this year. Complaints about inequality still abound, with natives saying that the 1987 commission of inquiry that followed Donald Marshall Jr.'s 11 years in prison for a murder he didn't commit has resulted in few substantive changes in the Nova Scotia justice system.

Racial tension has been on display during the lobster dispute. A native religious building burned to the ground. White fishermen have spewed anti-native venom at public meetings. A non-native, dressed in a long dark-haired wig, performed a mock "war dance" on the deck of a fishing boat while TV cameras rolled. "History is not going to look kindly on how natives were treated in this episode," says Sidney Pobihushchy, a retired political science professor from the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton. Even with the backing of the highest court in the land, it seems East Coast natives must always fight an uphill battle.