Talks collapse in fishery dispute
Mediator goes home: Native leader calls for prayer as Burnt Church prepares for violence

National Post
Thursday, September 21, 2000

BURNT CHURCH, N.B. - This Mi'kmaq community braced yesterday for more confrontations on the water as talks aimed at settling a dispute over lobster fishing collapsed, mediator Bob Rae went home and the federal Minister of Fisheries and Oceans warned that he has lost his patience.


Herb Dhaliwal, the Fisheries Minister, told the Mi'kmaq of Burnt Church that he is prepared to shut down their lobsterfishery, which he considers illegal.
Native activist James Ward, left, gets a close look at the activity on Miramichi Bay in Burnt Church, N.B., yesterday. Herb Dhaliwal, the Fisheries Minister, said he is prepared to shut down the lobster fishery.

Andrew Vaughan, The Canadian Press

"I've made every effort, but I will tell you my patience is at the end," he said outside the House of Commons. "If we don't have this resolved very quickly, I said I would take action, and I will."

The 1,500 members of this reserve on the shore of New Brunswick's Miramichi Bay were bracing last night for an expected federal raid to remove an estimated 2,000 lobster traps set by native fishermen.

An emotional Ovide Mercredi, the former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations who is advising the band, said last night that a call for "non-violent political action" will go out to chiefs across the country if Ottawa moves in. He said 240 people are travelling to the community from Manitoba in solidarity.

"There is a real threat of another raid in the community tonight," he told reporters. "My advice to the community is that they should pray. That's the power. Violence is not the power."

John Cummins, the Canadian Alliance fisheries critic, scoffed at the Minister's warning that he will act soon.

"He's been saying that for five weeks," Mr. Cummins said. "As long as he's seen to dither on this issue ... it encourages others to take the same kind of action."

The day began hopefully following the announcement late Tuesday that Bob Rae, the former Ontario premier who is mediating the dispute, had brokered an agreement under which the Mi'kmaq would remove "a substantial number" of their lobster traps.

But the joint Fisheries Department-Burnt Church squad that was supposed to survey the bay and remove any traps not carrying band-issue tags never materialized. Wilbur Dedam, the Burnt Church chief, said efforts to establish a joint patrol broke down because fisheries officials refused to return a native patrol boat seized last week in the most recent DFO raid.

He said the Burnt Church First Nation "has exhausted every avenue towards a peaceful resolution on the basis of our treaty and aboriginal rights, while respecting the rule of law, and we continue to work towards a peaceful resolution."

But Mr. Rae drove out of Burnt Church late last night, after a long day of talks with all sides in the impasse, saying "the parties are too far apart for mediation.

"Despite my best efforts it's pretty clear the government and the fishermen's union have decided they cannot accept the band's position," he said. "We've run out of time."

Mr. Dedam said the federal Fisheries Minister "hasn't budged at all" since mediation began on Sept. 11.

Ottawa contends last year's Marshall decision by the Supreme Court of Canada gave it the power to regulate the native fishery and it wants Burnt Church to fish alongside non-native fishermen during the open season in the spring.

Burnt Church fishermen insist the court gave them the right to manage their own fishery, and feel their fishing effort is dwarfed by the non-native fishery.

"The community is frustrated," Mr. Mercredi said. "The community has done everything. They don't deserve to be humiliated by anybody, least of all the Canadian government."

Frustration levels were also rising among non-native fishermen, who describe as laughable a suggestion floated by Mr. Rae that they be compensated financially for any damage done to lobster stocks by the native fishery.

Danny Noel, a fisherman from Val Comeau, N.B., said he rejected the idea of $10,000-per-head compensation. He said fishermen are prepared to repeat the actions of last October when a flotilla destroyed thousands of native lobster traps.

"We're waiting tonight to see what DFO are going to do and after that we're going to decide if we need to go in the water and cut everything," he said.