Dhaliwal to propose fish accord: Minister caught in struggle over native fishing rights

The Ottawa Citizen
Friday, October 1, 1999

Fisheries Minister Herb Dhaliwal is expected to announce today a proposed solution to tensions between native and non-native fishermen on the East Coast.

Negotiations aimed at defusing the crisis that developed after a Supreme Court ruling upholding native fishing rights went late into the night yesterday as Mr. Dhaliwal took the legal advice of the Justice Department to the major stakeholders -- natives, commercial fishing groups and provincial governments. The minister may also visit the area early next week to meet face to face with the various parties.

The high court's Sept. 17 decision upholding a 1760 treaty giving the Mi'kmaq and other native groups of the Maritimes the right to fish year-round and without licences has angered non-native fishermen.

The federal Fisheries Department is seeking a remedy through regulation, which the court ruling suggested as a guideline.

Yesterday, the Nova Scotia government urged the federal government ''to ease tensions in Nova Scotia fishing communities by seeking to suspend the ruling by the Supreme Court of Canada in the Donald Marshall Jr. fishing case. ''

''The federal minister of fisheries and oceans should be doing whatever it takes to seek a legal 'cooling-off' period following the Supreme Court ruling,'' Michael Baker, Nova Scotia's minister for aboriginal affairs, said in a statement.

But legal scholars have suggested that suspending the court ruling is not an option, that neither cabinet nor Parliament has the authority to take such a measure.

As well, an East Coast native leader vowed that any attempt to tamper with the ruling will end in global embarrassment for Canada before the United Nations.

''They go and do something against that Supreme Court ruling and you can rest assured that very quickly we'll have a delegation to the United Nations,'' said chief Lawrence Paul of Millbrook, N.S., chairman of the Atlantic Policy Congress of First Nations Chiefs.

Some stakeholders have called for compensation for any income loss suffered by non-native commercial fishermen.

Native and government leaders have called for the establishment of a task force made up of industry, native and federal and provincial government representatives to find agreeable solutions with an eye to protecting fish stocks.

Whatever the case, other Nova Scotia officials urged a quick resolution to the situation.

''We've had threats of violence and acts of vandalism,'' Ernest Fage, minister of fisheries and aquaculture, said yesterday. ''It's fine to say bureaucrats are working on a long-term strategy. But these are real tangible issues for the people of this province.''

In the same statement, Nova Scotia Premier John Hamm urged the federal government to define who is eligible to participate in the native food fishery and to define the meaning of the ''moderate livelihood,'' referred to by the court.

Non-native fishermen can only hope that Mr. Dhaliwal's strategy will be a positive one, said Michael Belliveau, executive secretary of the Maritime Fishermen's Union.

Some non-native fishermen have vowed to begin cutting the lines of lobster traps belonging to native fishermen if a satisfactory solution is not reached by Monday.

''We only have so much influence over our membership,'' Mr. Belliveau said.