Miramichi's war of words
Ottawa talks tough as N.B. natives vow to continue fishing

Toronto Star Atlantic Canada Bureau
Wednesday, August 16, 2000

BURNT CHURCH, N.B. - Fisheries Minister Herb Dhaliwal yesterday warned native fishermen to end their revolt on Miramichi Bay, saying their resistance to Ottawa's rules is hurting aboriginal people across Canada.

``This band is doing a disservice to aboriginal communities across Canada by resorting to violence when they can resolve this through negotiation,'' Dhaliwal said.

But the minister's tough words had little effect on this reserve, where men and women continued to pile lobster traps on open skiffs in defiance of federal fisheries regulations. And the revolt seemed to be spreading; 400 kilometres away, members of the Indian Brook First Nation set out in canoes to drop lobster traps near Digby, N.S.

Douglas Dedam was too busy fishing to hear Dhaliwal's televised plea to end the war over native rights that has simmered here for almost a year.

``Ha, no way!'' Dedam, 29, laughed as he tossed a bucket with 24 lobsters off his small boat. ``We are not going to negotiate. We will assert our rights and keep fishing, even if it takes 50 years.''

``I was insulted,'' said James Ward, who has helped organize the native fishery.

Ward said Dhaliwal's comments ``will lead to escalation. They keep pursuing the worst course of action they can to lead to confrontation.''

Chief Wilbur Dedam and band councillors yesterday reacted with anger to Dhaliwal's plea for new negotiations, saying they back the fishermen who continue to defy Ottawa on the sea.

``We are very proud of our fishery (and) very proud of our people who have supported our fishers,'' Dedam said. ``It really angered people, the way he said things.''

However, the chief offered a sliver of hope for a peaceful resolution to the tense standoff. The band council has appointed two representatives to engage in ``dialogue'' with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. But Dedam and others stressed their willingness to talk doesn't mean they will accept limits on what they see as their unfettered right to local resources.

Officials with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans last night downplayed the significance of the band's willingness to talk.

``It is positive at first glance,'' said spokesperson André Marc Lanteigne. ``But if they want us to stop enforcement while they keep fishing, that won't happen.''

Meanwhile, a small core of young men kept watch over twin barricades that have shut about two kilometres of the highway that connects the Acadian Peninsula to Miramichi.

And trained law enforcement officers of the Listuguj First Nation patrolled near the shore of the reserve with speed boats as local people set new traps.

Fisheries officials seized more than 700 traps here in a Sunday night raid that saw four local men arrested and one boat seized.

In a press conference televised across the country, Dhaliwal adopted a tough new tone on the issue, commending his officers for the controversial raid and warning that more traps will be seized if Burnt Church persists.

``No matter what frustrations people are experiencing, taking unilateral, unauthorized action that obliges the government to enforce, and then obstructing that enforcement, is unacceptable,'' he said.

``Violence and anarchy are not the solution. Negotiation and co-operation are.''

The raid has infuriated many on this reserve, where people voted overwhelmingly last week to reject a lucrative offer from Ottawa in favour of following their own fisheries management plan.

This conflict has been bubbling since last fall, when the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that Mi'kmaq, Maliseet and Passamaquoddy people have a treaty right to fish commercially.

Native people flocked to the water after that ruling, setting traps to catch lobster. That infuriated many commercial fishermen, who complained native people were getting an unfair advantage.

Last fall, more than 100 commercial fishermen stormed across Miramichi Bay and destroyed more than 400 native traps.

Since then, Dhaliwal has negotiated fishing agreements with many of the region's 34 bands. Burnt Church has refused to sign.

This summer, the band developed its own management plan that gives every resident here the right to set four lobster traps. That plan would allow roughly 5,000 traps to be set in Miramichi Bay between now and November. Ottawa wants the band to set only 40 traps, and not to sell any of the lobster.

Both sides agree the band should set roughly 5,000 traps in the spring season.

Both sides also agree this fight is no longer about the number of traps set, but about who controls the fishery.

``The question is about dominance,'' said Ward, who wrote the management plan. ``The real question, if you want to put all the fluff aside, is who owns the resources? The Mi'kmaq people do. We never gave it up in any treaty or agreement.''

Dhaliwal points out the Supreme Court also gave Ottawa the right to regulate the native fishery for conservation or other reasons.

``The judgment did not give aboriginal people the right to fish wherever and whenever they wanted,'' he said yesterday. ``To do that would undermine conservation.''

Native leader Lloyd Augustine pointed out that federal officials have not provided any evidence that local lobsters are in danger or that the native fishery would hurt local stocks.

``The Fisheries Act has decimated salmon and cod,'' he said. ``They talk about conservation and management, but they are doing a pretty poor job of it.''

``Look around and smell the coffee, government of Canada,'' said band councillor Chris Bonnell. ``We are here to stay.''