Real issues lost in lobster dispute

The Toronto Star
Friday, August 25, 2000

Ottawa had 11 months to defuse the tensions that erupted in the Atlantic lobster fishery last season. But here we are again, watching violent clashes between native fishermen and federal authorities in Miramichi Bay.

The two sides are still bitterly divided over the interpretation of the Supreme Court's 1999 ruling giving the Mi'kmaq a constitutional right to make a ``moderate livelihood'' from the fishery.

The federal cabinet is still scrambling to sort out the mess.

Indian Affair s Minister Bob Nault, who has kept such a low profile that he's almost been invisible, plans to travel to Burnt Church next week to begin negotiating aboriginal rights.

His instincts are right, but his timing is unfortunate. Arriving in the middle of a crisis is not an ideal negotiating strategy.

Where was Nault last winter when native leaders were willing to discuss the implications of the Supreme Court ruling calmly? Where was he last spring when they were preparing for the lobster season? Where was he in early August when native leaders in Burnt Church decided to defy federal authorities and drop hundreds of traps?

Most important, why does Ottawa keep treating this as a simple fishing dispute? It never was.

It is a test of the rights of native people to co-manage commercial fisheries. It is a demonstration of their determination to exercise their treaty rights over lands, forests, wildlife, minerals and oil and gas production.

Fisheries Minister Herb Dhaliwal should be a bit player in this drama. Instead, he is struggling to solve a problem that goes far beyond his jurisdiction.

He has done a relatively good job of administering existing fisheries rules. He and his officials succeeded in negotiating deals with 29 native bands that were ready to accept cash, new fishing boats and lobster and crab licences in exchange for agreeing to abide by the same regulations as non-native fishermen.

But Burnt Church held out for the right to regulate its own fishery. There was no provision for that in Dhaliwal's rulebook. So fisheries officials treated lobster fishermen from the reserve as lawbreakers, ramming their boats and seizing their traps.

The best Ottawa can hope for this lobster season is a fragile truce in the Burnt Church fishery. And even that will require great restraint on both sides.

But ad hoc measures - a truce here, a temporary settlement there - aren't the answer.

What is needed is a serious effort on Ottawa's part to address the issues at the heart of this dispute. That requires an Indian Affairs minister who is out listening to native people, willing to look at new ways of managing natural resources, ready to take risks. Nault has yet to display any of these attributes.

It is encouraging that he is finally sitting down with native leaders and provincial government to figure out how to implement native rights in a way that is fair and practical.

It would help if Nault began by treating native leaders as partners in conserving Canada's fish stocks, forests and resource wealth, rather than irresponsible marauders. They weren't the ones who destroyed the cod fishery, clear-cut whole forests or flooded vast tracts of land.

It would help if he listened, with an open mind, to their plans to co-manage resources. The existing rules were developed at a time when they had no bargaining power.

And it would help if he read his party's 1993 election platform. It says: ``The role of a Liberal government will be to provide aboriginal people with the necessary tools to become self-sufficient and self-governing.''

That's what the Mi'kmaq in Burnt Church are asking for.