Burnt Church natives agree to lobster deal
Mediator Bob Rae calls agreement `significant step'
Toronto Star Atlantic Canada Bureau
Wednesday, September 20, 2000
MIRAMICHI, N.B. - Native fishermen have agreed to pull hundreds of lobster traps from Miramichi Bay, shorten their fishing season and conduct joint patrols with federal officers to help find peace on the water.
The dramatic late-night breakthrough in the tense fight over native rights came yesterday, hours after a deadline for mediation passed.
``This is a very significant first step,'' mediator Bob Rae said last night.
``It is important to emphasize that this is a positive development, and will contribute to an ultimate settlement,'' Rae said.
The former Ontario premier said federal Fisheries Minister Herb Dhaliwal has not promised that he will stop controversial raids on the water that have turned violent in recent weeks.
Federal officials were holed up in a hotel room late last night trying to decide whether they will continue to seize the remaining native lobster traps set off the shores of the Burnt Church reserve.
``We are at the decision point right now,'' said Gilles Theriault, a key federal negotiator.
But last night all sides appeared to relax when they realized the preliminary deal was falling into place.
``This is the news we've all been waiting for,'' said Jim Jones, regional director of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.
An official with the Maritime Fishermen's Union said they will urge their members to accept the deal and not take the law into their own hands.
``We are pleased that the band is going to remove significant numbers of traps,'' said union official Reginald Comeau. ``We are going to wait for that and tell our fishermen to wait for that.''
Asked if this was a key breakthrough, Burnt Church spokesperson Karen Somerville said, ``We certainly hope so; we certainly think so.''
The development came only hours after Dhaliwal appeared to be giving up hope in a quick settlement.
Dhaliwal had said in a release he was ``deeply disappointed'' that mediation hadn't worked and warned native leaders not to use talks as ``a shield for unauthorized activity.''
``We cannot and will not jeopardize conservation, or the viability of the fishery, by letting fishing activity continue unabated.''
Under the preliminary deal struck last night, native fishermen and federal fishery officers will team up today to begin counting traps in Miramichi Bay. Any traps that don't carry tags from Burnt Church or the federal government will be removed. Rae, who extended his own Tuesday deadline, said the band has also promised that a ``very significant number'' of tagged traps will be pulled from the bay.
The dramatic development came as dozens of people gathered in Burnt Church expecting another raid today by fishery officials.
Earlier in the day the Mi'kmaq community of about 1,300 people had agreed during a community meeting to end their lobster fishery in 2 1/2 weeks.
That is about three weeks earlier than they originally wanted to pull their traps.
More than 20 native warriors last night blockaded the local wharf and police cars lined roads leading to the reserve. In nearby Neguac, dozens of non-native fishermen were gathering at a fishing wharf.
`This is a very significant first step.'
|- Mediator Bob Rae |
Ovide Mercredi, former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, was in Burnt Church yesterday and had pleaded for restraint and tolerance from both federal officials and non-natives.
``The people of Burnt Church don't want to take anyone else's livelihood,'' said Mercredi, who is advising Matthew Coon Come, the current national chief, on the situation. ``They just want equal access to the resource so they can have a livelihood themselves.''
The fight over native fishing rights has escalated dramatically over the last month, with violent confrontations weekly on the water. Dozens of native people have been arrested and people have been badly hurt on both sides of the fight over whether native people can fish lobster out of season.
The Supreme Court ruled last year that Mi'kmaq, Maliseet and Passamaquoddy people have a right to fish commercially.
Burnt Church says that ruling gives it the right to establish its own rules over the fishery. It began fishing lobster in the summer and fall, when non-native fishermen are banned from the water. Dhaliwal insists that Burnt Church must fish under federal regulations.
The only commercial fishery sanctioned by Ottawa in the bay is from late April until the end of June. Although there is provision for a native fall food fishery, Burnt Church dismissed that as insufficient and pursued a full-scale livelihood fishery.
Burnt Church set thousands of traps in this shallow bay. That infuriated local fishermen, who systematically destroyed native traps in a raid.
That raid sparked three days of violence that saw cars and one home burned and a man beaten with a baseball bat.
With files from Canadian Press