Burnt Church natives promise revenge for sabotaged traps

The Ottawa Citizen
Thursday, October 7, 1999

BURNT CHURCH, N.B. The news of a raid brought about 80 Mi'kmaqs yesterday, ready to defend the Burnt Church wharf from a caravan of white fishermen reportedly on their way.

The rumble never materialized, but it showed how determined natives here have become to defend their right to fish year-round, granted by the Supreme Court three weeks ago.

''It was just a rumour,'' said Clifford Larry, acting as a spokesman for the reserve. ''We have to guard against that.''

Tensions have remained high in this community since Sunday, when non-native fishermen cut loose about 3,000 native lobster traps from their buoys.

In response, natives seized the Burnt Church wharf to protect their boats and have barred entry to others. A handful of skirmishes and incidents of arson have also kept this bayside community on edge.

While waiting for the outcome of meetings among federal Fisheries Minister Herb Dhaliwal, native leaders and leaders of the non-native fishermen's groups, natives have come from across New Brunswick to watch events unfold and help guard the Burnt Church wharf.

Most natives blame non- native fishermen for instigating the violence and say they'll seek retribution in the spring, when the regular fishing season begins.

''Payback's a bitch, and come next spring I'm going to be out there and I'm going to get me some traps,'' said one native fisherman who said his traps were cut. ''In the springtime, I'll get reimbursed.''

There is little evidence that efforts to relax tension in this divided community are succeeding. Police are everywhere: the RCMP has beefed up its presence, with 15 officers patrolling the community all the time. The Coast Guard kept an eye on the waters.

Rev. Dan Kirkegaard, a United Church minister in Burnt Church, has called for an prayer vigil today at 1 p.m. outside St. David's United Church in Burnt Church.

''That's what we will be asking people to do -- to seek peaceful solutions, to be able to stand together in calling for that and to base it on faith, not on political persuasion, on emotion or fear, '' Mr. Kirkegaard said. ''All we can do in the midst of difficult situations is to offer what we expect to be helpful.''

''The actions that are happening are coming from individuals who for many different reasons find themselves with the need to make a stand,'' he said. ''I don't know what's going to happen next.''

Meanwhile, native fishermen showed signs that they were easing their trapping activity. Many could be seen pulling their lobster traps out of the water, saying the cold water had sent the lobsters burrowing into the bay bottom and out of reach.

Mark Simon, 22, a fisherman from the Burnt Church First Nation, said he lost 40 mesh traps worth about $60 each in the initial bout of vandalism. He said he does not plan to go back on the bay with the traps he has bought as replacements because the season is over.

Although he said he will go out again in the spring, he said he expected the conflict between native and non-native fishermen will continue. Ever since East Coast natives were first allowed to fish for subsistence about a decade ago, he said, tensions between whites and natives have grown.

''It'll never be resolved because we're on the water,'' he said. ''Even when we were allowed to fish for food, the only time they talked to us was when it was bad news.''