Coon Come offers natives support before lobster lunch

Toronto Star Atlantic Canada Bureau
Friday, August 18, 2000

BURNT CHURCH, N.B. - Canada's top native leader upped the stakes in the battle over native rights here, warning fisheries officials must ``back off'' or face a conflict of national proportions, like the one at Oka, Que.

``(Fisheries Minister Herb) Dhaliwal must give instructions to his people, first of all, to back off,'' Matthew Coon Come, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, told reporters yesterday.

``Hopefully, some logic and rationale will prevail so that we don't have an Oka situation (but) it's not going to go away. Right across Canada, the fisheries groups and native organizations . . . are supporting us and watching us very closely. Burnt Church is on the front line as we speak.''

A Quebec policeman died in the 1990 Oka armed standoff by Mohawks against a golf course expansion.

Coon Come spent the day here encouraging people who are battling for the right to regulate their own fishery. He began yesterday morning by touring lobster grounds on Miramichi Bay where native fishermen have set more than 300 traps in defiance of federal officials.

Then he met with band leaders and reporters before tucking into a lobster feed at the local school gym. Coon Come pledged complete support to those here who refuse to recognize federal authority on the sea, calling the fight a ``necessary and courageous step to raise the standards for all.''

In a toughly worded statement, he denounced Dhaliwal, saying the minister is trying to divide native people, has lied about legal issues involved and wants aboriginal people to remain stuck in poverty.

Fisheries officials said they were troubled by Coon Come's statement.

``It is not good for us when he supports an illegal activity and it also will probably increase the pressure on our people out (on the bay),'' said André Marc Lanteigne, a spokesperson for the fisheries and oceans department.

``What we heard this morning is . . . a broader agenda for the development of aboriginal communities. We do not disagree with that. But our department is not in a position to negotiate and deliver what they are looking for.''

Band leaders are supposed to sit down with federal fisheries negotiator James MacKenzie today.

Band leaders have called for federal fisheries officials to stop raids on the water during negotiations and federal officials have asked the band to stop fishing as long as talks are scheduled.

Neither wish came true yesterday.

Native fishermen continued to set new traps on the water through the day and Dhaliwal vowed he will continue to enforce regulations that have seen officers clash several times with native fishermen on the bay.

Four native fishermen were arrested Sunday night in a scuffle that saw fisheries officers use pepper spray as they seized more than 700 native lobster traps.

People here are now gearing up for the most important festival of the year, an annual powwow centred on a feast of lobster and clam.

One woman here said this is the most important week of the year for band members to fish lobster.


`Telling us not to fish just before our powwow is like telling a Catholic not to go to church on Sunday'
- Miigam'agan A woman on Burnt Church reserve

``Telling us not to fish just before our powwow is like telling a Catholic not to go to church on Sunday,'' said the woman named Miigam'agan.

``Of course we will not stop fishing.''

Federal fishery boats yesterday were conspicuously absent from waters off Burnt Church reserve where they have hovered since fishing began eight days ago. On Wednesday morning, fishery boats collided with a native patrol boat as they tried to survey lobster traps near the shore of the reserve.

Coon Come yesterday referred to fisheries officers as ``troops'' in a ringing condemnation of Dhaliwal and government policy.

``He is clothing the actions of his government in legitimacy when there is none,'' Coon Come said. ``What possible interest could Canada have in keeping aboriginal peoples poor?

``It's a crying shame when you look at your backyard and see non-native fishermen extracting a natural resource - and you're not entitled to benefit from that resource so you can deal with your poverty, with your unemployment, to create an economic base where there is 90 per cent unemployment. That is unacceptable in Canada.''

Dhaliwal has offered Burnt Church five fish boats, more than $2.5 million and four more spring lobster licences, each covering 300 traps, if the band agrees to fish under federal rules. The band is already authorized for about 5,000 traps but Dhaliwal took away 400 from the August-October native fishery in a zone where non-native fishermen run 250,000 traps.

The band voted last week to reject that offer, asserting their treaty right to set rules for their own fishery.