Trap raid aborted as gunfire heard
Fisheries officers say shots came from Burnt Church reserve
Tuesday, September 26, 2000
RCMP and Department of Fisheries and Oceans officers return to the wharf in Neguac, N.B., yesterday after gunshots were heard while fisheries enforcement officers were seizing lobster traps. It is the third episode of gunfire reported off the Burnt Church reserve.
Andrew Vaughan, The Canadian Press
BURNT CHURCH, N.B. - Federal fisheries officers say they were forced to abandon a pre-dawn raid on native lobster traps yesterday after two gunshots were fired from the Burnt Church reserve.
It is the third episode of gunfire reported off the Mi'kmaq reserve in the past four days, and the first directed at enforcement officers since the lobster dispute began last month. Bob Allain, area director for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, said there is heightened concern for the safety of those working to shut down the native lobster fishery in Miramichi Bay.
"We're not going to put the lives of our officers in danger. We don't want to put the lives of others who may be on the water in danger as well. We're taking the appropriate security measures," Mr. Allain said, declining to elaborate.
Inspector Kevin Vickers of the RCMP described the situation in the Burnt Church area as "explosive" and said investigators from the force's major crimes unit are investigating the report of gunshots. He said investigators have not ruled out the possibility that what sounded like a gunshot was a flare.
The DFO officers were about a kilometre from shore when they reported hearing the shots at 5:30 a.m. The operation, which had yielded 176 lobster traps, was immediately called off.
"We were sufficiently distant from shore at that particular point in time that it didn't raise a great concern, but we have to be mindful of the fact that there is potential for some injuries," Mr. Allain said.
The department is determined to remove the roughly 500 native lobster traps remaining, which are now concentrated close to the shore. As Mr. Allain briefed reporters in nearby Neguac yesterday morning, 14 DFO boats approached the Burnt Church shoreline and scooped up dozens of additional traps before being chased off by Mi'kmaq Warriors.
For much of the afternoon, the two sides continued a game of cat-and-mouse, with DFO vessels venturing toward the reserve and native boats taking to the water to head them off.
James Ward, who co-ordinates the Burnt Church security effort, said his people are prepared to defend a "security zone" close to the shore where buoys marking lobster traps can be seen bobbing in the waves.
"We pursue them as we did today and make sure they don't touch our traps," he said. "They've always had bigger boats and more boats and we still stopped them." He would not comment on whether the Warrior boats carried weapons, but in the past he has said they only have "sticks and stones."
Burnt Church band leaders denied that any shots were fired at DFO officers. Lloyd Augustine, a hereditary chief, suggested it might have been a hunter after geese.
"The order has been given to the community that we do not want violence out in the waters. We will go out and protect, but we will not condone or execute violence against anyone," he said.
The people of Burnt Church maintain that last year's Supreme Court of Canada Marshall decision recognized their right to manage their own fishery. But the Fisheries Department says it has the power to regulate and wants the natives to fish alongside commercial fishermen when the season is open in the spring.
Mr. Allain could not predict how long it would take to remove the remaining traps. "We're just going to pick away at it and try to get the traps out as quickly as we can," he said.
A 41-year-old Neguac fisherman, Roger LeBlanc, appeared in provincial court yesterday to face charges of careless use of a firearm and possession of a weapon for dangerous purpose after shots were reported off the reserve on Saturday morning. RCMP continue to investigate a shooting on Friday that left a bullet hole in a non-native fishing boat. The shot was alleged to have been fired from a native boat, and Insp. Vickers said investigators have identified a "person of interest" in relation to that shooting.