Clash on the water raises tension at Burnt Church
Boats seized, 16 arrested: Native mood sours just as Rae begins to mediate


National Post, with files from The Canadian Press
Wednesday, September 13, 2000
Police stand guard as a seized native fishing boat is removed from the dock in Neguac, near Burnt Church, N.B., yesterday. It was one of four boats seized by Fisheries officers in the dispute over native lobster fishing.

Mario Landry, Caraquet L'Acadie Nouvelle

Hopes that the appointment of mediator Bob Rae might cool tensions in the New Brunswick native fishing dispute were short-lived yesterday as Fisheries officers clashed with natives on the water and arrested 16 people, including Wilbur Dedam, chief of the Burnt Church reserve.

News of the arrests and the seizure of four boats came as Mr. Rae, the former Ontario premier appointed mediator Monday, was holding his first meeting in Ottawa with officials of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

"In my opinion, the events today, which were a surprise to me, clearly point to the need for mediation. They point to the need for peace on the water," Mr. Rae told reporters.

Karen Somerville, a spokeswoman for the Burnt Church band, said the atmosphere for talks has been damaged. "It has put another wrench into getting the mediation process started," she said.

The target of yesterday's morning raid was a fleet of six large fishing boats that arrived recently in Burnt Church from the reserve of Big Cove, about 70 kilometres to the south.

Jim Jones, regional director-general for the Fisheries department, said that as his officers attempted to stop two of the 12-metre boats, two smaller boats buzzed around trying to thwart the operation.

One of the speedboats capsized and its four occupants had to be rescued by RCMP divers assisting the operation. One of the occupants was treated in hospital for unspecified injuries and released.

Sergeant Roger Somers of the RCMP said the boat overturned as a result of rough seas, but Ms. Somerville said it was rammed repeatedly by enforcement officers.

Those arrested are expected to face charges including illegal fishing and obstructing police. Mr. Dedam and some of the others arrested opted to spend last night in jail rather than sign an undertaking to remain off Miramichi Bay as a condition of their release, Ms. Somerville said.

She also said Mr. Dedam went fishing yesterday after being assured Monday by Wayne Wouters, the deputy minister of Fisheries, that the department would not be be taking any enforcement action.

Mr. Jones rejected that claim. "No such assurance was given by the deputy minister," he said. "The deputy minister made it very clear to the chief that [the department] was placing no conditions on its enforcement activities."

In his statement Monday announcing Mr. Rae's appointment, Herb Dhaliwal, the Fisheries Minister, warned his department would "continue to take appropriate action as required to uphold the law."

The federal government contends that last year's Marshall decision by the Supreme Court of Canada gave it the 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. Jones said the department intervened yesterday because the arrival of boats from Big Cove was significantly increasing the size of the fishery, which previously was mostly conducted from small dories.

"There are many bigger vessels fishing from other communities. That has complicated things considerably," he said.

Officials said the two larger boats seized yesterday came from Big Cove. But Ms. Somerville said one of them had recently been bought by Mr. Dedam.

Police are also investigating an incident which may be linked to the dispute at Burnt Church. RCMP in Bouctouche, N.B., confirmed yesterday that an investigation is under way into the burning of a lobster boat which had been purchased by an off-reserve Mi'kmaq group for use by natives at Burnt Church.