Fish dispute creates mood of suspicion: Feelings harden amid burnings, vandalism

The Ottawa Citizen
Wednesday, October 6, 1999

BURNT CHURCH, N.B. Amid a mood of growing suspicion, the Burnt Church Reserve's name took on an ironic twist yesterday.

In the afternoon, someone burned down an arbour, on the road leading into the reserve, a loose collection of wood shingle houses ringing the north coast of Miramichi Bay. RCMP said the blaze set in the wooden shelter used for religious and community gatherings was deliberately set.

Natives say they continue to be provoked by non-native fishermen.

''They wouldn't like it if we burned down a white church,'' said Leo Bartivogue, a native fisherman who said he lost all his lobster traps to non-natives on Sunday.

Late last night, in a dark area near the Miramichi Bay, three groups gathered for three all-night vigils. Natives from across New Brunswick gathered along Bayview Drive. The group laughed, talked and listened to radios playing in cars and pickups.

''We are here for our children's children. Their future,'' said Stuart Augustine, a Mi'kmaq from the nearby Red Bank Indian Reserve, while smoking a cigarette outside his minivan.

RCMP vehicles prowled everywhere. In the dusk, an RCMP helicopter patrolled and reporters camped out in a cluster of cars and vans on the other side of the wharf.

Talk on the reserve is about escalating tensions. Any other violence will bring Mohawk warriors from Oka to the rescue of their native brothers on the east coast, Mr. Bartivogue said.

In 1990, Oka warriors grabbed Canadians' attention during a 78-day stand-off between Mohawks and police near Oka. Cpl. Marcel Lemay of the Surete du Quebec was shot dead when police rushed barricades manned by armed Mohawk Warriors. Later, the military stepped in.

Stand-offs over native issues have occurred since. In August 1995, two RCMP officers were shot at by native rebels at Gustafsen Lake, B.C. The rebels later surrendered to police without casualties. Later that summer, Chippewa Dudley George was fatally shot by Ontario Provincial Police during a skirmish with protesters occupying Ipperwash Park, near Sarnia.

Yesterday, Evan Savoy stood in front of his friend's damaged shed, wondering grimly how relations could turn so hostile over aboriginal fishing rights.

''We were finally getting along well with the natives,'' Mr. Savoy, 47, a lifelong resident, said after surveying the garage door rammed by a truck.

''I'm in jail now. The only thing that's missing is the bars ... We're being (held) hostage here in this community.''

A spokesman for the Burnt Church First Nation said the arbour arson has made an already tense situation worse.

''We are asking our people to remain calm and no physical confrontations,'' Alec Dedam, the band's comptroller, said outside a meeting of Atlantic chiefs in Halifax yesterday. Mi'kmaq warriors, on the reserve as peacekeepers under the direction of the chief and council, had stepped up security in Burnt Church as a result of the fire.

''We are living under a state of siege,'' said one woman whose property was vandalized Sunday. ''We're scared to death.'' As she spoke, several police cars and vans cruised up and down her once-quiet country road.

Some natives say a small group is likely behind the violence.

''We were getting along until this happened,'' said Anne Dedam, a native fisherwoman. ''Now when you drive up to a stop light and see a non-native, you get the finger.''

Confrontations didn't stop native fishermen from setting at least 50 traps yesterday, as native security forces in combat fatigues and waving Mohawk flags guarded the wharf.

Meanwhile, an offer by the Acadia First Nations band to remove their lobster traps off southwestern Nova Scotia broke a standoff with non-natives.

Atlantic Mi'kmaq chiefs met in Halifax late yesterday to decide if they would adopt the Acadia plan. They are to meet today with Fisheries Minister Herb Dhaliwal.

Natives had a blunt warning for Mr. Dhaliwal. ''If he goes against it (the Supreme Court decision to allow natives to fish out of season) I think they'll have trouble like they've never seen before,'' said one resident who is married to a Mi'kmaq woman.

With files from the Canadian Press