Natives follow own course

Toronto Star Atlantic Canada Bureau
Saturday, August 12, 2000

BURNT CHURCH, N.B. - LISTEN TO James Ward, the mohawk-headed, combat-booted native activist who has frustrated all of Ottawa's attempts to forge peace on these troubled fishing waters this year.

``The Canadian government needs to maintain a racist relationship with the native people in order to justify the injustices it has and still is conducting against native people,'' Ward told a committee of the United Nations in Geneva last month.

``The political, judicial, social and economic structures of the Canadian nation deliberately treat native people as inferiors. For Canadians to assume that we are equals to the Euro-Canadians would make them morally question their relationship with us.''

High-flying rhetoric is common on Maritime reserves where people are trying to figure out a new path for the future. But organized resistance to the status quo is not.

Ward has led an unusual revolt on this hard-scrabble reserve on the shores of Miramichi Bay. But then, Ward is an unusual kind of activist.

A former U.S. marine who has done graduate work in political science, he turned down an offer to study at Georgetown University last fall. Instead of joining the elite Washington institution, he chose to stay in this community and fight for native fishing rights.

The fight, of course, isn't really about fish. It is about history and money and what it means - or doesn't mean - to be native in Canada today.

Almost a year after the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that Mi'kmaq and Maliseet people have a treaty right to fish commercially, things are a mess along the shores of Atlantic Canada.

Ottawa has issued a blizzard of press releases pointing to progress on the file that erupted into violence last fall. True, Fisheries Minister Herb Dhaliwal has bought peace on 29 of the region's 35 reserves, but that peace is purchased, not forged, and promises to last only as long as new money keeps flowing in.

Ottawa bought boats and poured cash into reserves that agreed to follow federal fishing regulations last winter and spring. But the deals are good only for one year, and some have already started to fall apart.

Fisheries officers recently arrested 15 members of Nova Scotia's Indian Brook reserve and seized seven boats, including one expensive boat that Ottawa gave the band as part of a fishing deal signed last winter.

Bands discovered this week just how arbitrary the deals were. For many months, Ottawa refused to release details of the deals either to the Canadian taxpayers who paid for them or to natives themselves.

Turns out Ottawa had good reason to keep the deals secret: They aren't fair.

Consider: Burnt Church was offered a licence to set 5,100 commercial traps in Miramichi Bay this spring, as well as a slice of the lucrative snowcrab market. Yet, the Indian Brook First Nation, with roughly the same population, got tags for only 400 lobster traps and no snowcrab.

The bands that played hard-to-get got the best offers. And no band has been harder for Ottawa to get on board than Burnt Church.

There are several reasons for that. Ward is just one of them.

In the euphoria following the Supreme Court's Marshall decision last fall, hundreds of natives around the region dropped lobster traps in the ocean - with Ottawa's blessing. In Burnt Church, old men took out dories to make a few extra bucks.

The traps enraged local commercial fishermen who are banned from fishing lobster in the early autumn. They thought the natives were getting an unfair advantage in a strictly controlled and competitive industry.

On Oct. 3, they struck back. An armada of 100 fishing boats destroyed more than 4,000 lobster traps set by the people of Burnt Church.

The raid on Miramichi Bay sparked three nights of violence that saw trucks torched, a man beaten with a baseball bat and a house and a sacred gazebo set on fire.

None of the men convicted of destroying native traps had to spend time in jail. Only a handful of the native traps were ever replaced by the commercial fishermen.

People here felt betrayed by both their neighbours and by the police and fisheries officials who failed to stop the raid. Then, just as they were pondering whether to give up the fight and bow to the regulations of the fisheries department this spring, they felt betrayed again.

For many years, Ottawa has allowed native people to catch lobster out of season to eat or use in ceremonies. The summer catch wasn't supposed to be sold on the market, but in many places it was, with Ottawa's quiet consent.

Ottawa allowed Indian Brook and Burnt Church to catch enough lobster to provide every man, woman and child on those reserves with more than 1,500 kilograms of meat. Clearly, the lobster was being sold, yet every year Ottawa issued new tags without a peep of protest.

Suddenly this summer, Ottawa all but abolished the native food fishery. Burnt Church saw its out-of-season quota cut to 40 traps from 586; Indian Brook was told it could only use 35 traps, instead of 400.

Ward helped draw up a management plan for his reserve to follow and preached the gospel of self determination, telling people here that fishing was not just a matter of getting money to buy kids new shoes, but of reclaiming a resource that has always belonged to Mi'kmaq people.

The alternative was to sign a deal with Ottawa that would see the band get a peaceful fishery in the spring, and oodles of cash.

Ottawa offered the band five new boats, each worth about $100,000. It offered $2.2 million to fix the crumbling dirt wharf, $300,000 for a new fisheries building and $65,000 to replace the 4,000 destroyed traps.

But Wednesday night, the band voted 308 to 28 to reject Ottawa's offer and follow its own rules.

That decision makes no sense from any perspective outside the reserve. Burnt Church has nothing tangible to gain from insisting on following its own management plan, and it has a lot to lose.

This is a tough place that suffers the familiar evils of no work, too much drugs and alcohol and a suicide rate off the charts. People need the money that fishing could bring.

Dhaliwal has warned that he will not let them fish under their own rules. Boats will be seized, and more people arrested.

Outside the reserve, this might not make sense, but inside the reserve it does. In a place that has had little hope for many years, telling Ottawa to take a hike has turned into a precious, rare badge of self-respect.

``I hope we become a model for other native people,'' Ward said after Wednesday's vote. ``I hope other native communities can find the courage to persevere.''

No doubt that's just what Ottawa fears.