Both sides blame greed for fish war

The Toronto Star
Wednesday, October 6, 1999

MIRAMICHI BAY - The night before the fish war began, Philippe Manuel and James Simon were on opposite sides of this wide gray bay, each determined to defend their rights to the sea.

Manuel, 35, was fixing the power winch on his gleaming 13-metre fishboat, getting ready to help destroy thousands of lobster traps legally set by Micmac people from the Burnt Church reserve.

''I can't believe I'm doing this,'' he said, shaking his head. ''I've never done anything wrong in my whole life. I've never even stolen a potato.''

Simon was out on the water in a rickety 7-metre plywood boat hauling up his traps by hand in the dark with four buddies from the reserve, unaware of the coming raid and thinking about what the buckets of lobster at his feet would buy.

''No more baloney and cold molasses!'' Simon yelled into a soft wind under a starry sky.

''It's my turn for steak. I want gravy on my potatoes, onions on the side, maybe even a little table wine.''

His buddies laughed at the precision of their friend's desire.

The war over native fishing rights that erupted in the Maritimes this week was ugly and bloody, but it wasn't a surprise. Native and non-native communities here are separated by more than geography and tradition. There is a gulf of misunderstanding and economic disparity that has created deep bitterness and distrust on both sides.

The war began when more than 150 local fishboats took to the sea Sunday morning and systematically destroyed thousands of lobster pots that were set by Micmac people after the Supreme Court recognized they have a broad right to hunt and fish for profit.

That touched off a volley of violence, with cars burned, a house set ablaze and one man sent to the local hospital after he was hit in the head with a baseball bat.

No one knows what the future holds here, but it isn't hard to trace exactly how and why things got this bad, this quickly.

Baie Ste. Anne on the southern shore is a pretty place, a one-church town that is the home of New Brunswick's last Liberal premier Frank McKenna. Most homes are low and made of wood, but there are also several large, ornate brick houses on the bumpy road to Escuminac, where 150 lobster boats are tied up at the wharf.

Lobster fishermen make a good living in the Maritimes - up to $60,000 for two to six months' work. That's why a licence to fish the tasty crustacean can cost $200,000.

When the court ruled last month that natives had the right to fish and hunt year-round without a licence, fishermen like Manuel figured it would be the end of their way of life. And they resented their poorest neighbours getting to fish without having to pay for expensive licences or respect federally regulated seasons.

'It's life or death. If the Indians win . . . the whole parish will be gone' ''It's like I grew a garden and they are letting someone else pick it,'' said Manuel as he worked on the boat he named for his only child, 10-year-old Iselle.

''It's life or death. If the Indians win, well, the whole parish will be gone. ''

But both federal officials and native leaders say the native fishery poses no threat to the lobster stocks of Miramichi Bay. Native fishermen dropped roughly 3,000 traps into the Miramichi Bay. In the spring season, non-natives drop 450,000 traps in the same waters.

Simon and his buddies insist their fishing won't hurt their non-native neighbours. But, they say, if they are wrong, too bad.

''It's our turn,'' said Simon.

''They fished for 200 years and we couldn't. We had treaty rights and they ignored them. Maybe the government should buy those guys out and turn the whole thing over to us for the next 200 years.''

The reserve where Simon lives across the bay from Manuel is a stunning contrast to Baie Ste. Anne.

The dirt road to the Burnt Church wharf has potholes big enough to roast a pig in. The wharf itself has loose boards, holes and nails that have been known to puncture tires.

Most of the boats tied there are too small to go past the mouth of the bay, open dories and old fishboats that carry no radios, navigation equipment or mechanical gear to haul the heavy lobster pots out of the cold ocean.

For many native fishermen, safety equipment means a roll of fireworks to set off on the stern in an emergency.

Burnt Church is a troubled place, with drug problems, vicious internal political battles and poverty.

Simon was living on welfare before the Supreme Court decision. He got $317 every two weeks.

Days after the court decision, he and four buddies borrowed a boat and money to buy 300 lobster traps. The day before the raid, they chugged away from the wharf at noon and started hauling the heavy wet line from the ocean hand over hand.

By 10 p.m, they had filled two small bins with lobster, each bin worth roughly $540.

They were ecstatic.

''My woman makes the best bread in the whole world,'' said Simon. ''But I'm tired of homemade bread. I want to go buy bread at the store.''

Asked what he wants beyond expensive food, Simon fell silent.

''Children,'' he finally said.

''I never had enough money for kids. Maybe now it's time.''

Many natives, including a single mother, borrowed money to buy lobster traps When the traps were cut, it left many people here far worse off
than they were before the court ruling.

Many had borrowed money to buy traps - including one single mother who was trying to raise three children on welfare. Many people spent their first cheques paying off old bills and buying small presents. Now they owe money on fishing gear that is at the bottom of the sea.

Not all native boats were tiny. Fishermen from southern New Brunswick's Big Cove reserve brought well-equipped 12-metre boats from Richibucto.

Big Cove is also troubled, a place that gained national fame for a string of juvenile suicides a few years ago. Many Micmac people blame an 80 per cent unemployment rate and pervasive racism for the suicides that continue to plague many reserves.

''This Supreme Court decision is our freedom,'' said Melvin Augustine of Big Cove.

''No one would hire us or give us jobs. We had nothing. But now we can all be independent businessmen. We can fish, we can hunt. We can make money. We waited 240 years for this.''

Simon said no natives are able to get jobs in the town right next to Burnt Church, and that no natives are hired as deckhands on any of the fishing boats in the area.

Millie Augustine is a Micmac woman who is a licensed lawyer and has a graduate degree in business administration. She can't find a job.

''I used to feel like an uneducated bum,'' she said.

''Now I feel like an extremely well-educated bum. They won't give us jobs and now, when we finally get something, they want to take it away from us. It's just greed, greed, greed.''

That's just what the other side says, too.

''It's just greed,'' insisted city councillor Ken Clark, who eagerly escorted reporters to the scene of the raid Sunday morning.

''The Indians don't care about conservation. They just want to make a quick buck.''

Terry Lloyd is a deckhand who stood in the parking lot drinking beer and joking with buddies the night before they went out to destroy the native traps.

He pointed out that non-native fishermen had to give up 75 traps over the last three years to boost conservation. Now they can only drop 300 traps each, instead of 375.

''Why did we do that if they can drop all the traps they want whenever they want?'' he asked.

''It makes us feel stupid. Are we trying to help conservation so we can give all the lobster to the Indians?''

Manuel is a good-looking man with a mop of curly hair and the kind of open, tanned face found in commercials.

He seemed nervous the night before the raid, even depressed. But as he broke the law the next morning, his spirits clearly soared.

The fishermen seemed proud of their sabotage. City councillor Clark beamed as he ferried reporters and photographers to the water to show off boats where men were ripping tops off lobster pots, cutting lines and stuffing buoys in cages that would take them to the bottom of the sea.

News trickled back to the wharf at Burnt Church slowly of the raid. When people discovered the whole fishery had been wiped out, some cried. Others yelled.

Simon said: ''They just started a war.''