Rae to mediate at Burnt Church
Time running out: Dhaliwal drops demand that natives stop fishing
Tuesday, September 12, 2000
Bob Rae, the former Ontario premier, has been appointed to mediate the volatile dispute over native lobster fishing in Burnt Church, N.B.
With tensions high on Miramichi Bay, Herb Dhaliwal, the federal Fisheries Minister, dropped his earlier demand that the Burnt Church Mi'kmaq stop fishing in order to get talks started.
In a statement from Ottawa, however, Mr. Dhaliwal warned that Fisheries officers could resume seizing native traps at any time. "In the absence of agreement on temporary fishing levels, we will continue to take appropriate action as required to uphold the law," he said.
Ottawa contends that last year's Supreme Court of Canada Marshall decision gave it the ultimate power to regulate the native fishery, and it wants the people of Burnt Church to fish alongside non-native fishermen when the season is open in the spring. The Burnt Church fishermen insist the court gave them the right to manage their own fishery.
Mr. Rae, who practises law in Toronto, was not available for comment yesterday. On Sunday, following a meeting with the Burnt Church band council, he told the CBC he is optimistic that all parties can be accommodated.
"There's a role for the [Department of Fisheries and Oceans] in terms of conservation. There's certainly a role for the native fishery in the future and obviously the commercial fishery is something we want to make sure is strong and vital," he said.
Mike Belliveau, executive secretary of the Maritime Fishermen's Union, said time is running out to resolve the conflict. His group's members, non-native fishermen whose season is now closed for conservation reasons, are not happy that mediation will begin with native lobster traps still in the water. "If they continue fishing, how do you expect there to be any talks going on?" he said.
Andr*-Marc Lanteigne, a spokesman for the Fisheries Department, said that with 1,500 traps set, the native fishery is larger than it was before the department's most recent crackdown two weeks ago. Burnt Church fishermen have recently been joined by at least six well-equipped fishing boats from the Big Cove reserve, about 70 kilometres away.
Mr. Lanteigne said Fisheries officers will resume seizing traps when weather and tide are right.
The Burnt Church band council had initially asked for two mediators, one of whom would be aboriginal. But Karen Somerville, a band spokeswoman, said yesterday people feel they can trust Mr. Rae. "He seemed like a fair man," she said.
This is not the first time Mr. Rae has taken on a contentious issue since leaving politics. Most recently, he represented the Red Cross in negotiations with tainted-blood victims, which led last month to a $79-million compensation agreement. Negotiation and mediation are among the specialties of his law practice.