No truce on choppy waters
Fisheries staff spurn Mi'kmaq `cooling-off' offer
Toronto Star Atlantic Canada Bureau
Thursday, August 17, 2000
BURNT CHURCH, NB - Canada's top native leader arrived in this troubled community last night after a day of violence and shattered hopes for an end to the fight over native fishing rights.
Matthew Coon-Come, the Quebec Cree elected national chief of the Assembly of First Nations this summer, was to meet with Mi'kmaq community leaders this morning, one day after another confrontation on the waters of Miramichi Bay.
The bow of a native patrol boat was cracked yesterday morning after it collided with a federal fisheries vessel during a high-speed duel on the choppy waters off this reserve.
With almost 100 people watching from shore, federal fisheries officers and native law enforcement officers from the Listuguj First Nation played a cat and mouse game on a stretch of water dotted with hundreds of buoys marking native lobster traps.
The collision inflamed tempers on this reserve, which is in a fight over whether Ottawa or the band will set the terms for a native fishery.
Tempers appeared to ease, with band leaders announcing late in the day that they would begin talks with federal officials today. They even put out a release, saying both sides had agreed to a ``cooling-off period '' during talks.
But federal officials denied there was a truce late last night, saying the band did not respond to a federal offer to let native traps stay in the water so long as fishermen do not harvest their catch.
``I don't know why they put out that press release,'' said fisheries spokesperson André Marc Lanteigne.
``There is no truce. We have not agreed to a cooling-off period, though we still hope they will talk to us today. ''
Band spokesperson Karen Sommerville called the federal offer ``absurd. Why would we leave traps in the water and not fish them? That is the most absurd thing André Marc Lanteigne has said.''
On the other side of the country, a prominent native activist and scholar warned that the situation in Burnt Church could escalate into confrontations across the country if the federal government responds to native fishermen with violence.
In B.C., there's talk of sympathy roadblocks
``People from British Columbia would be willing to have their own action, their own roadblocks, in support of Burnt Church if the government gets even more violent,'' warned Taiaiaike Alfred, director of the indigenous governance program at University of Victoria.
``They aren't planning anything right now but people are talking about it.''
Last night, natives continued to barricade a highway that connects the Acadian Peninsula to the rest of New Brunswick.
It went up Sunday after four fishermen were pepper-sprayed and arrested by fisheries officers who seized more than 700 native traps.
This band voted last week to reject Ottawa's authority over the sea, saying it would set its own fishery regulations.
Fisheries Minister Herb Dhaliwal has rejected that idea, saying the Supreme Court has given him the power to regulate both the native and non-native fishery.
Last year, the Supreme Court ruled that Mi'kmaq, Maliseet and Passamaquoddy people have a treaty right to fish commercially. It said Ottawa can regulate the native fishery for conservation or other specific reasons.
Dhaliwal has not set out the specific reasons for his department's regulations.
Ottawa wants Burnt Church to fish only 40 lobster traps in the summer and to use the catch exclusively for food and ceremonial purposes.
Band backs plan for 6,000 traps
Band members have voted for a plan to set up to 6,000 traps in waters off the reserve.
Fisheries officials estimated yesterday that native fishermen have put more than 300 traps back in the water since Sunday night's raid, when the bay was swept clean of all traps.
After the Supreme Court's ruling last year, people here set about 4,000 traps in the bay. Ottawa did not object to the native fishery then, but local fishermen did.
A flotilla of 100 commercial boats destroyed all the native traps in a morning raid that left a bitter residue of anger on the reserve.