Burnt Church natives reject lobster deal
308-28 vote sets stage for new fight over fishery

Toronto Star Atlantic Canada Bureau
Thursday, August 10, 2000

BURNT CHURCH, N.B. - The people of this impoverished reserve last night rejected a $2.5-million peace offer from Ottawa, voting a resounding 308-28 to defy federal fishing regulations even if that means losing boats and going to jail.

The day-long vote sets the stage for another series of confrontations on Miramichi Bay over an issue that has become a rallying cry for native rights in this region.

Community leaders predicted dozens of small boats will take to the water today to set lobster traps in defiance of federal regulations. Officials with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans have vowed to arrest anyone fishing without a federal tag.

Last year, the issue sparked violence across the region when native and non-native fishermen clashed over who can fish lobster, when and where.

Hundreds of native fishermen took to the water around the Maritimes last September after the Supreme Court of Canada ruled Mi'kmaq, Maliseet and Passamaquoddy people have a treaty right to fish commercially. That ruling enraged commercial fishermen who said native people were getting an unfair advantage in the strictly controlled industry.

The issue turned ugly when an armada of non-native fishermen destroyed more than 4,000 native lobster traps in Miramichi Bay last fall. The raid sparked three nights of violence that saw trucks burned, a man beaten with a baseball bat and two structures torched.

Many native bands have since struck deals with Ottawa over how and where they can exercise the treaty right recognized by the Supreme Court.

But Burnt Church has refused to sign any deal. This week, members of the impoverished First Nation were asked whether they wanted to continue flouting federal law, or accept a $2.5 million package that would see them get new fishing boats and a new wharf in exchange for following federal regulations. They voted to reject the deal and follow their own management plan for the lobster fishery.

James Ward led the fight in Burnt Church to oppose Ottawa's authority. ``I hope this is a model for native rights across the country,'' he said. ``Here you have people who held to their convictions in the face of many obstacles.''

Ward said he will personally be part of a Burnt Church security detail to stop fishery officers from seizing native traps.

``If we have to get into a tug-of-war over traps we will,'' he said. ``We will defend our rights . . . but we don't want to escalate the violence.''

Andre-Marc Lanteigne, a spokesperson for the fisheries department, said illegal fishing won't be tolerated, but vowed: ``We will not be drawn into a confrontation. Our only goal is to stop illegal activity.''

The band's plan calls for the use of 6,000 traps between tomorrow and the end of October, compared to 35 allowed by Ottawa.