2 sides in fish dispute prepare for war
N.B. natives call Rae's final proposal `insult'
Toronto Star Atlantic Canada Bureau
Monday, September 18, 2000
NEGUAC, N.B. - Native fishermen must agree to pull their lobster traps from Miramichi Bay by tomorrow or efforts to solve the crisis in Burnt Church will die, says mediator Bob Rae.
On the first anniversary of a controversial Supreme Court decision on native fishing rights, both sides were preparing for war.
More than 1,000 non-native fishermen gathered for a stormy rally in this tiny town while just a few kilometres away, dozens of members of the Warrior Society met in Burnt Church to discuss an expected raid on native lobster traps.
Even former Ontario premier Bob Rae, who is serving as mediator here, offered little hope that peace will be found.
``I've been here for nearly a week,'' Rae told reporters after leaving an emotional rally of non-native fishermen.
``This isn't rocket science. It shouldn't take that long to get an agreement if there is a willingness to talk. If there continues to be profound philosophical differences of opinion, that isn't something that's going to be solved by mediation.''
Rae has proposed a short-term solution that would see Burnt Church give up the essential principle at the heart of this conflict - the right to a fall lobster season for native people.
Several band members predicted last night that Rae's proposal will be dead by this morning. James Ward said that in exchange for pulling their traps, the natives were being offered an unspecified amount of money.
``It is an insult,'' said Ward, who wrote the fisheries plan that Burnt Church has been following since August.
``For us to accept any amount of money in exchange for our rights is just short of treason for Mi'kmaq nations.''
Even band members who were urging compromise appeared shocked last night by the proposal.
``I'm shaken and I'm really, really disheartened,'' said band spokesperson Karen Somerville. ``I don't think I can talk right now.''
Rae said conservation of lobster stocks must be the first priority in a dispute that has flared into violence several times.
``It simply isn't possible for there to be two commercial fisheries,'' Rae said, referring to the separate season set up by Burnt Church fishermen.
``The waters won't sustain it, the stock won't sustain it, conservation won't sustain it. We have to find a way to substantially reduce the number of traps in the water right now.''
Several biologists and environmentalists, including the president and the policy director of the Conservation Council of New Brunswick, have said the Mi'kmaq fishery in Miramichi Bay does not threaten lobster stocks.
But Rae said unpublished government studies have persuaded him those environmentalists are wrong.
``Frankly, it's always better to err on the side of conservation than the other way around,'' he said.
``Once they are gone, it isn't easy to get them back.''
Rae has been here since last Tuesday, trying to solve a problem that began after the Supreme Court recognized Mi'kmaq, Maliseet and Passamaquoddy people have a right to fish commercially.
`Frankly, I think we've done a great job'
The Sept. 17 ruling plunged this region's fishing industry, which is governed by hundreds of complex laws and traditions, into chaos.
Mi'kmaq people throughout the region immediately took to the water to try to cash in on the lucrative lobster fishery. That infuriated non-native fishermen, many of whom come from families who have fished the same waters for more than 100 years.
Last October, fishermen set out in more than 100 boats from nearby Baie Ste. Anne and systematically destroyed more than 4,000 lobster traps set by native people.
At the time, the federal government said the native traps were legal. However since then, Fisheries Minister Herb Dhaliwal has decided they pose a conservation threat to lobster and has ordered Burnt Church to remove all but 40 traps in the fall.
Dhaliwal has come under harsh criticism from both sides for his handling of the issue, which has several times flared into violent conflicts that left people recuperating in hospital. In a recent interview, Dhaliwal said Ottawa has done a good job of smoothing the waters since the Supreme Court's controversial decision came down.
Dhaliwal pointed out that only two of the Maritimes' 35 bands are actively fighting his government over the issue. Burnt Church continues to fish in defiance of federal authority and Nova Scotia's Indian Brook First Nation has challenged Dhaliwal's strategy in court.
Most of the other bands have signed one-year agreements that see them fish in the regular season in exchange for hefty payments from Ottawa.
``Those agreements are a foundation to build on,'' Dhaliwal said.
``I've worked extremely hard on getting agreements and helping aboriginal people. Frankly, I think we've done a great job.''
Not many people on either side here agreed with that statement yesterday.
More than 1,000 commercial fishermen, their friends, relatives and neighbours, met for two hours yesterday afternoon in a rally that was fuelled by rage.
The biggest cheers came for speakers who urged the crowd to repeat the raid of last year and destroy the native lobster traps on their own.
``It is the wrong thing to do, but it is the only thing that will work,'' warned Guy Cormier.
Others complained of feeling like prisoners in their own homes and said they are intimidated by members of the Warrior Society who stand guard at the wharf in fatigues, often with their faces covered by bandanas.
``We are told to stand back and let them have the wharf, well I'm not gonna,'' said Michele Morrison, the wife of a local fishermen who is charged with assaulting a native man after last fall's raid.
``When we speak the truth, we are labelled racist and that's not fair. The government is teaching our children that people can break the law and get away with it.''
Fishermen came from around the region and P.E.I. to attend the rally.
At the Burnt Church reserve last night, a group of B.C. chiefs stopped by to offer their encouragement.
And several carloads of warriors from other Maritimes reserves arrived to swell the ranks of warriors who have been here for weeks.
Ward, who has set up tents in a field for the warriors, said the fight is about power, not lobster.