Violence shatters lobster truce
Fisheries officer may need plastic surgery after attack

Toronto Star Ottawa Bureau
Wednesday, August 23, 2000

OTTAWA - Prime Minister Jean Chrétien defended an overnight seizure of native lobster traps, and hinted at more patrol actions as a fragile truce between Mi'kmaqs and federal fishery officers collapsed yesterday in a melee on the water.

One fisheries officer could need plastic surgery after being smacked in the face by a rock as a force of fisheries officers and RCMP seized a boat and 553 lobster traps, most of which natives claim were set by non-native poachers.

A fisheries department spokesperson told Canadian Press bones on the man's cheek, nose and possibly those on his jaw were broken.

Two men now face charges of obstructing fisheries officers.

Asked if the enforcement action was escalating violence in Miramichi Bay, Chrétien said it was a matter of conservation and law and order.

The fisheries department is obligated to make sure the resource is well-managed ``so that there will be fish for generations to come,'' Chrétien told reporters yesterday.

``And the Supreme Court (of Canada) recognized very clearly that responsibility.''

The high court ruled last year the Mi'kmaq and Maliseet people have a treaty right to fish to earn a ``moderate livelihood'' although that has never been defined. The court also later clarified the treaty right may be regulated by the Crown to account for conservation concerns and the existence of non-native participants in a fishery.

The decision sent hundreds of native fishermen to the water in the Maritimes and sent Ottawa scrambling to work out fishery deals with native bands.

It has failed to reach a deal with natives in Burnt Church, N.B., who claim the right to fish according to their own management plan.

``Everybody has to respect the law,'' said Chrétien.

``And I think the law enforcers are following what is their duty to do and I hope that everybody will respect the law. It's the way that a country functions.''

Fisheries Minister Herb Dhaliwal blamed the lobster fishermen of Burnt Church for reneging on a temporary agreement reached Friday to limit the number of traps in certain areas while talks are conducted.

``We only removed traps in those areas that we considered a restricted zone, where we did not agree for them to continue, that they agreed to remove. They did not do that,'' said Dhaliwal.

``In fact they put out more traps than what they had on Friday. So I don't think that's good-faith negotiations.''

For their part, the natives of Burnt Church accuse the federal fisheries department of breaching good faith.

James Ward, a spokesperson for the Mi'kmaq and architect of the native fishery plan, said the fisheries department had already violated the truce shortly after it was declared on Friday by sending up patrol aircraft to verify the number of traps set.

``They violated the good faith,'' Ward said, disputing the number of traps cited by fisheries officers.

``Three hundred of those traps do not belong to my community,'' he said. ``They belong to non-native poachers, as far as we know.

``We had a trap net count that was well below 1,000.''

Federal fisheries spokespersons say nearly 620 native traps remain in Miramichi Bay, close to the shore of the Burnt Church reserve.

Ward was out on the water yesterday and said his boat was bumped by a fisheries department Zodiac.

He accused fisheries officials of ``fear-mongering and trying to cause trouble with non-native fishermen.''

Ward said there appears to have been a miscommunication. He said natives told federal negotiators they couldn't agree to a trap limit until their community had been consulted.

``We believe in a consensual democracy and we practise it,'' said Ward.

He said fisheries officials had agreed that a suitable number would be brought back to the table yesterday.

Instead, an enforcement operation began about 2:30 a.m. EDT yesterday.

At least 14 fisheries boats, two RCMP patrol craft and a Coast Guard ship were involved, said native fisherman Vernon Mitchell.