Uneasy calm prevails as Mi'kmaqs set traps: More talks urged as holdout band members defy moratorium on fishing

Ottawa Citizen
Saturday, October 9, 1999

BURNT CHURCH, N.B. Some native fishermen vowed to continue fishing today while other holdouts in the region reluctantly agreed to honour a plea by their chiefs for a voluntary moratorium.

''I'm going to stay on the water; it's our treaty right,'' Bert Sanipass, 26, a Mi'kmaq lobster fisherman from the Big Cove First Nation, said yesterday after pulling his 11- metre boat from Burnt Church wharf onto Miramichi Bay, where he hauled about 18 kilograms of lobster worth about $200 from his 50 traps.

As two Canadian Fisheries boats chugged nearby and an RCMP helicopter thundered overhead, Mr. Sanipass said that for natives to agree to a self-imposed moratorium was to give up the Supreme Court ruling upholding their ancient right to fish without government intervention in the Maritimes.

Later yesterday, Ben Silliboy, grand chief of the Mi'kmaq grand council, met with Big Cove First Nation members to underscore his request for conservation and safety concerns. Mr. Silliboy had urged natives to exercise a 30-day fishing moratorium during Wednesday's meeting of 35 Atlantic native chiefs and Federal Fisheries Minister Herb Dhaliwal.

''I guess it's for the safety of everybody. Less violence. Better sleep for everybody,'' said Ron Clair, a lobster fisherman who agreed to stop fishing. He said he was frustrated by the measure because he would rather work than pick up a welfare cheque at the band office.

Mr. Clair's bother, Anthony, said he would not honour the grand chief's request, nor respect any measure by the federal government to impose restrictions. ''I'm still going to fish. I don't know why they want to stop me. Because the Supreme Court of Canada says we can fish, we can fish.''

According to estimates by some Big Cove members, the majority of fishermen agreed to stop fishing, while others estimate only half agreed. A day earlier, native fishermen from the neighbouring Burnt Church First Nation in northeast New Brunswick, the scene of recent violence after commercial fishermen damaged native fishing equipment, decided unanimously to continue fishing.

The estimates mean about a dozen native lobster boats from Burnt Church and Big Cove could be in the Miramichi Bay region over the weekend, compared to the 200 commercial boats during the commercial season.

In Nova Scotia's small fishing region in the Upper Bay of Fundy, near Digby, an area known as District 35, native and commercial fishermen have agreed to begin fishing in harmony when the commercial season opens Oct. 14.

In a statement issued yesterday after the two groups met, the district's commercial fishermen called for further talks. ''District 35 wants no part of any hostilities toward each other,'' the statement reads.

Emotions were not as calm at yesterday's meeting in Big Cove.

Cyril Gehue, a Mi'kmaq lobster fisherman, tried in vain to set fire to a wooden lobster trap and Acadian flag.

''The courts have upheld our rights to fish,'' said Mr. Gehue, 37.

In a letter distributed at the meeting by chief Robert Levy giving an account of Wednesday's meeting between the Atlantic chiefs and Mr. Dhaliwal, Mr. Levy accused the minister of at one point ''storming out of the meeting'' and threatening to shut down the fishery.

Calling the threat a terrible insult, Mr. Levy's letter said Mr. Dhaliwal ''threatened us rather than offering to work with us. We would not be threatened.''

Mr. Dhaliwal did not ''storm'' from the meeting and threatened no one, Heather Bala, a spokeswoman for his office, said yesterday from Ottawa.

She said Mr. Dhaliwal is encouraged that most native fishermen are agreeing to a moratorium and is awaiting the outcome of the request by the Atlantic chiefs before he makes any announcements.

Yesterday, at the wharf near the edge of the Burnt Church First Nation, RCMP and native warriors dressed in combat fatigues patrolled the area. { au: Rick Mofina dt: 10/03/99 sc: oc}