Dhaliwal responds to critical column

Tuesday, October 10, 2000
 I have appreciated Janice Harvey's ongoing interest in the situation at Burnt Church. In her last column ("Burnt Church and the Twilight Zone of Miramichi Bay," Sept. 27), I was pleased by her interest in upholding Canadian rule of law. But I must say that I was surprised by her misunderstanding of recent events in this situation.

Broadly speaking, Ms. Harvey has three main points. First, she argues that my department acted in bad faith. As evidence, she offers the failure of the recent mediation process, arguing that my department was inflexible, and rejected offers of compromise from Burnt Church. Second, she challenges my concern with conservation. And finally, she says my department has violated the constitution by seizing traps without laying charges. Were they founded in fact, these allegations would be serious indeed. But instead, they are founded in perceptions which have little to do with facts.

On the question of "bad faith," my department offered numerous compromises to help bring about a resolution. Our original position was that the Burnt Church First Nation could fish 40 lobster traps for food, social and ceremonial purposes. Yet we offered to discuss higher numbers of traps. We looked at the band's management plan, and offered to increase their role in resource stewardship. We showed restraint in our enforcement activity, only acting to seize traps when conservation concerns made it necessary. We set aside our own proposed mediator, and accepted one from the band's own list of candidates.

In all of these actions, we were patient, flexible, and reasonable. And I should remind you that the mediation process was only the latest in a long series of attempts by my Department to engage in dialogue with the Burnt Church First Nation. We did everything possible to reach a negotiated outcome. At no time did we reject offers of compromise from the Burnt Church First Nation.

And, as a point of record, the band did not offer to shorten their fishing season as a concession to government. Rather, they unilaterally advised the government that they might end their season early due only to low catch rates and unfavourable weather conditions.

Regarding conservation, I should first be very clear that I have never said that conservation is my only concern. To do so would be to ignore the Supreme Court's Marshall ruling, and my responsibilities as minister. Instead, I have been clear and explicit from the beginning in saying that, in addition to conservation, the Supreme Court said I must regulate the fishery for other important objectives such as economic and regional fairness, and recognition of the reliance of non-Aboriginal groups on the fishery.

Nevertheless, conservation does remain my first priority. And my department has been in constant communication with the band about our conservation concerns, both with their present level of fishing effort, and with their proposed management plan. The scientific evidence is clear; even if no one but the Burnt Church First Nation were to fish lobster in the Miramichi Bay area, the level of effort they are proposing would still be too high, and would pose a conservation risk.

And again, as a matter of public record, the commercial fishery in Lobster Fishing Area 23 (where the band has been fishing) has been closed since the end of July. The variation order I issued was to close the food fishery in the area, where 40 tags had been issued to all the band to fish for food. Ms. Harvey is quite right when she says the larger, commercial fishery had been closed all along.

On the question of laying charges, I should point out that charges have been laid against a number of people at the Burnt Church First Nation. I have said many times that my department would take appropriate enforcement action, and that includes laying charges where the circumstances and evidence support doing so. Far from violating the law, we are upholding it, using all the tools at our disposal.

Like Ms. Harvey, I am eager to see the rule of law respected in Canada. Like her, I want to see a successful fishery for the Burnt Church First Nation. But for these goals to be realized, it is important that we look clearly at the facts of the case, rather than confusing facts and perceptions.

Minister of Fisheries and Oceans