Natives gear up for lobster fight
Burnt Church issues 3,000 tags for traps officials vow to seize

Toronto Star Atlantic Canada Bureau
Friday, August 11, 2000

BURNT CHURCH, N.B. - Men, women and children of this poor reserve eagerly lined up to join their band's fledgling fishery yesterday, preparing to launch a new battle in a Maritime war over native rights.

Leaders passed out more than 3,000 tags to band members for lobster traps that federal officials have dubbed illegal and promised to seize.

``We are just trying to exercise our treaty right,'' band councillor Brian Bartibogue said yesterday. ``Some are afraid for people's safety, but we will defend our people.''

Last night, Burnt Church Chief Wilbur Dedam was asked to deputize 12 men as special police officers to escort native fishing boats that will leave a small harbour today.

Officials of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans have vowed to stop the unregulated fishery, saying they will do ``whatever is necessary'' to enforce Ottawa's authority on the sea.

``It is an illegal fishery. It is illegal to sell it, illegal to process it,'' said Andre Marc Lanteigne, a department spokesperson.

``We can mobilize 100 people within one hour and we have dozens and dozens of small, fast boats along this coast. We will be present on the water, but our only interest is to make it stop. It can be stopped by seizing traps. We don't have to have a confrontation.''

The Burnt Church First Nation has been at the centre of a fight over native rights since the Supreme Court ruled last fall that Mi'kmaq, Maliseet and Passamaquoddy people have a treaty right to fish commercially.

Hundreds of commercial fishermen destroyed 4,000 native lobster traps set in Miramichi Bay, setting off three nights of violence.

This week, band members voted again to fish for lobster without Ottawa's blessing, turning down an offer of five new boats and $2.5 million in cash with a 300-28 vote against accepting federal regulation.

The band and Ottawa agree Burnt Church should use roughly 5,100 lobster traps in the spring fishery. But Burnt Church wants to use another 6,000 lobster traps in August, September and October, while Ottawa wants to limit that number to 40.

Under the band's plan, each man, woman and child on the reserve is entitled to four tags for lobster traps.

As jubilant men and women lined up to pick up their band fishing tags from a community hall yesterday morning, a screaming match broke out between those who want the band to follow its own rules and someone who favours compromise.

``Traitor!'' one man yelled at another.

Most band members seemed delighted by the decision to fish without Ottawa's approval.

James Simon lost all his traps in last fall's raid and hasn't found work since.

``I spent the winter and spring on unemployment, and partying,'' he said yesterday. ``But now it's time to work again.''

Two people immediately loaded traps into open skiffs and set out into Miramichi Bay, but most fishermen are waiting until today to go out with their security patrols.

A few people at the community centre yesterday were wary of the plan.

``I hope DFO will leave us alone, but I know that they won't,'' said band councillor Albert Martin. ``They won't accept our tags. It isn't going to happen.''

Federal officials yesterday insisted they still want to negotiate with Burnt Church, and commercial fishermen in the region shrugged their shoulders last night at news that Burnt Church has decided again to defy Ottawa.

``It's DFO's problem now, not ours,'' said Zoel Robichaud, who has fished from the nearby Neguac wharf for 35 years. ``We have no problem with native people fishing, as long as they follow the same rules.''