Fish dispute in N.B. turns ugly
Natives block highway, say federal officers seized traps at gunpoint
The Toronto Star
Monday, August 14, 2000
MIRAMICHI, N.B. (CP) - Native fishermen erected a fiery blockade along a major highway leading to this coastal town late last night after federal fisheries officers seized their lobster traps and reportedly drew guns, ordering them back to shore.
More than 20 cars and trucks sealed off the roadway along Highway 8, the major commercial route along New Brunswick's east coast, their hazard lights blinking as about three dozen band members paced angrily near a three-metre high bonfire.
The native fishermen and other band members from the Burnt Church reserve set up the blockade to protest a midnight raid on several hundred lobster traps in Miramichi Bay.
Fisheries officials were pelted with fish guts
Fisheries officers seized numerous traps late last night after the native boaters set traps in defiance of federal regulations that limit their rights to mine the ocean of lucrative lobster.
The standoff on Miramichi Bay was the day's second confrontation. Earlier, federal fisheries officers were pelted with fish guts by one fisherman.
Hours later, the shoreline was dotted with confused and frightened reserve members, who parked vehicles and shone their headlights out on to the dark, moonlit waters where the clash took place.
Native fishermen reportedly took to their boats at about 10 p.m. after learning the officers were pulling up their traps.
They quickly returned to shore, some screaming and crying, yelling: ``They pointed guns at us!''
The fishermen tried once more to head back out to where the officers were removing the hundreds of traps, but again returned.
They vowed late last night to restore their traps.
The fishermen have set about 200 lobster traps in defiance of Ottawa's fishing regulations, Andre-Marc Lanteigne, spokesperson for the fisheries department, said yesterday.
Ottawa wants to allow the band members 40 traps for use in a food fishery, while the band is arguing it has the right to put as many as 5,200 traps in the bay.
The first confrontation yesterday began when seven native boats surrounded two patrol boats that were checking lobster traps in the waters, 40 kilometres northeast of Miramichi.
Photographers and film crews who saw the confrontation yesterday morning said a native threw a bucket of fish guts at officials on boat.
Lanteigne said the bait was probably from ``a bucket of mackerel'' and the department was considering laying charges. The officers withdrew from the scene and nobody was hurt.
Natives said the incident was provoked after a fisheries boat almost swamped a native dory with its wake a day earlier. Native fisherman Doug Dedam said his small boat would have sunk if it had filled with water. ``I could have drowned and my children would have been fatherless.''
But Lanteigne said fisheries officers were merely approaching Dedam to see if he was fishing legally. He said many of the native boats are so small it's questionable if they are safe in the bay.
``The small boat was barely managing to keep above the small waves and when our boat approached it for inspection it made it even worse,'' he said.
Fishing leader James Ward said the natives have told the fisheries officers to leave their traps alone.
``They've been warned time and time again to find another political solution, but they're not doing it,'' he said. ``They know this is going towards confrontation.''
The federal officials started seizing native lobster traps in the area in northeastern New Brunswick on Friday night, an act members of the Burnt Church reserve say violates their fishing treaty rights.
Last year's rulings by the Supreme Court of Canada said natives have the right to fish for food and ceremonial purposes, subject to federal regulation.
The Mi'kmaq say they want to be left in peace to pursue their livelihood, but Lanteigne said the fisheries department can't back down.
He also said if fisheries doesn't attempt to police the situation, local fishermen may attempt to take the law into their own hands - as occurred last fall when hundreds of native traps were destroyed by non-native fishermen.
Burnt Church is one of the few Atlantic bands that won't accept a federal offer of gear and commercial licences.
To date, 29 of the 34 Mi'kmaq and Maliseet reserves in Atlantic Canada have either signed fishery deals or agreements in principle with the federal government. The deals include free boats, training and financial assistance for fishermen.