Tension rises at Bunt Church as deadline nears
Warriors vow to take 'counter-action' if Ottawa removes traps

National Post
Friday, September 22, 2000

BURNT CHURCH, N.B. and OTTAWA - Saying "promises in place of action" from the Burnt Church Indian band are no longer acceptable, Herb Dhaliwal, the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, has ordered the removal of all the band's lobster traps in Miramichi Bay by 11 a.m. today.

A day after mediator Bob Rae walked away from talks in the native lobster dispute, saying the sides were too far apart, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans told the Mi'kmaq band yesterday the bay was closed to all lobster fishing, including a 40-trap food fishery the government previously had sanctioned.

"The time has come when I can no longer accept promises in place of action," Mr. Dhaliwal said. "I cannot negotiate at the expense of conservation, of fairness or of social order."

But Mr. Dhaliwal also warned he will not tolerate vigilante action by angry non-native fishermen frustrated with the government's inaction to date.

On the reserve, where unemployment is close to 90% and lobster fishing has become one of the few sources of income, there was no sign that band members planned to back down. "If we take them out, it's like we're giving up," Raymond Dedam said as he waited on the wharf to head out fishing.

Karen Somerville, a band spokeswoman, maintained her people will not stop fishing, an activity they see as a treaty right affirmed last year by the Supreme Court of Canada. "We're not fishing illegally," she said.

The community will hold a prayer vigil at 11 a.m. today, and leaders have asked all Canadians to join in. But the militant Warrior Society, which has established an encampment on the reserve, was contemplating less pacific action. Frank Thomas, war chief of the Mi'kmaq Warrior Society, warned fisheries officers will face resistance if they attempt to remove traps. "This will be taken as a hostile act, and appropriate counter-action will be taken with extreme measure," he said in a statement.

After weeks of fruitless negotiations -- during which time 75,000 kilograms of lobster were harvested out of season -- Mr. Dhaliwal said armed fisheries officers have been ordered to ensure there are no lobster traps in Miramichi Bay. The band was given 24 hours to remove their traps before officers of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans seize them.

He urged native fishermen to avoid a repeat of the violent confrontation that marked earlier attempts by DFO officers to enforce the law, but he also promised to take action against any non-native fishermen who try take the law into their own hands.

Fisheries officers will be armed, he said, and the RCMP will be on hand to deal with "any individual who would take the law into their own hands."

He added: "Confrontation on the water is not the way to resolve this situation. I will not tolerate any action by any users of the resource which would jeopardize a peaceful and prosperous fishery. I'm calling on all Canadians for calm, for restraint, and for a real commitment to peace."

Jim Cummins, the Canadian Alliance fisheries critic, said Mr. Dhaliwal will have to shoulder the blame for any confrontation because of his failure to act decisively at the start of the dispute.

"We are faced with a potential confrontation here between commercial fishermen and natives -- or the poachers, let's use that term -- if they come out to protect their traps. Given that, the Minister must screw his courage together and get out there and take a hand to get those traps out of the water. He has to use every means at his disposal to get the traps out of the water, to avoid a confrontation between two groups of citizens."

The dispute stems from a Supreme Court ruling last year, known as the Marshall decision, that recognized the right of Mi'kmaq and Malecite people to earn a moderate living from hunting and fishing.

The Mi'kmaq in Burnt Church say the decision means they can fish for lobsters in the fall when the commercial fishery is closed.