Peace reigns as fishing begins after last fall's violent lobster wars, 'Nobody wants trouble'

Kelly Toughill
The Toronto Star
Saturday, April 29, 2000

HALIFAX - Neighbours who battled over native fishing rights last fall will hit the water together today for a new fishing season that most expect to be peaceful, if not friendly.

Tensions from last fall's violent lobster wars can still be felt on wharves across the region, but few are expecting the explosion of fire and injury that shocked the country last year.

''I think everything is okay," said Chris Bonnell, a lobster fisherman and band council member of New Brunswick's Burnt Church First Nation, which saw days of rioting last October.

''Nobody wants trouble."

Hundreds of native fishermen began fishing lobster out of season last fall after the Supreme Court ruled that centuries-old treaties gave them commercial fishing rights.

That sparked angry raids by non-native fishermen, who said that native fishermen would harm the lobster stocks.

Non-native fishermen destroyed 3,000 native lobster traps in Miramichi Bay, sparking days of trouble that saw two cars and a house burn down and one native man beaten with a baseball bat. Non-native fishermen also destroyed native traps in Nova Scotia.

Things have not been perfectly calm over the winter. The truck of a key native activist was destroyed recently after he spoke out against a proposed deal with the federal government.

Fishermen in Prince Edward Island's Malpeque Bay are still particularly upset by the issue. They have sent a letter to Prime Minister Jean Chretien demanding an inquiry into the way the Department of Fisheries and Oceans has handled the affair. They complain that new licenses given to the Lennox Island First Nation will increase the number of lobster traps in the bay - a claim that federal officials deny.

Several groups yesterday claimed responsibility for the uneasy peace on Maritime wharves, saying they spent the winter trying to solve the crisis.

Mike Belliveau is director of the Maritime Fishermen's Union, whose members destroyed native traps last year. Belliveau said he has held meetings with his members up and down the New Brunswick coast to educate them about the court ruling and to ''demystify what a native is."

He said the union also met regularly with people from Burnt Church to try to build bridges of trust and goodwill.

Fisheries Minister Herb Dhaliwal also claimed credit yesterday, saying the federal program to buy up existing commercial fishing licenses to give to native bands has calmed the waters.

''If you look at the press clippings last year, no one would have predicted we would have had 19 agreements signed and in principle," Dhaliwal said.

''Our strategy is working well."

Fourteen of 34 bands have signed deals with the government and five more have tentative agreements. Bands that sign the deals get boats, gear and money for training as well as licenses to fish different species.

But several key bands - including Burnt Church - have refused to sign the deals, saying they violate treaty rights. Burnt Church plans to adopt its own rules over the fishery.

Bonnell said band members had ample opportunity to retaliate for the traps that were destroyed last winter, but did not. He hopes that will generate good will between the two communities.