Natives get lobster ultimatum
Dhaliwal orders all traps removed from Miramichi Bay today

Toronto Star Atlantic Canada Bureau
Friday, September 22, 2000

BURNT CHURCH, N.B. - It's showdown time on Miramichi Bay.

Fisheries Minister Herb Dhaliwal yesterday issued an ultimatum in the tense dispute over native fishing rights, saying every single lobster trap must be out of the water by 11 a.m. today.

``The time has come where I can no longer accept promises in place of action,'' Dhaliwal told reporters yesterday in Ottawa.

``I'm always open to negotiation on ways to make the fishery work, but I cannot negotiate at the expense of conservation.''

Non-native fishermen rejoiced at news that Ottawa had set a deadline to end the often violent dispute, but native fishermen said they will keep fishing.

``We are asking all Canadians to pray for us at 11 a.m.,'' said Burnt Church band spokesperson Karen Somerville.

``We don't want anyone to get hurt. We are just trying to exercise our treaty right to fish.''

Burnt Church Chief Wilbur Dedam sent a letter to fisheries officials late last night asking them not to raid until his band has a chance to conduct an audited count of the number of traps still in the bay.

The mood was quiet on the reserve yesterday as native fishermen continued to check their traps on the bay. A helicopter with the bright orange markings of the coast guard circled over the reserve several times, but there was no sign of fishery patrol boats.

In the late afternoon, activist James Ward gave a final pep talk to several dozen members of the Warrior Society who have promised to thwart any attempt to close down the native fishery.

``If they try to seize our traps, I will go after them,'' Ward said last night.

``That is our job, to get out there and go after DFO.''

Frank Thomas, who leads one large faction of the paramilitary group, warned that any move by Ottawa to seize native fishing traps will be met with ``extreme measures'' from his followers.

``It will be a good day to die,'' he said.

It was clear last night that if Ottawa didn't move soon to seize native traps, non-native fishermen would do the job themselves.

Fishermen from as far away as Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia have vowed to sweep the bay if Ottawa holds off beyond tomorrow.

Commercial fishermen destroyed 4,000 native traps in Miramichi Bay last year, sparking three nights of violence that saw cars and a home burned down and a native man beaten with a baseball bat.

``This is long overdue,'' Mike Belliveau, director of the Maritime Fishermen's Union, said of Dhaliwal's ultimatum last night.


`If they try to seize our traps, I will go after them'

Federal officers have swooped across the bay several times to seize unauthorized traps. The difference with this deadline is that Dhaliwal has ordered all traps to be taken - including traps that Ottawa had sanctioned under a special aboriginal food program.

Prime Minister Jean Chrétien backed up Dhaliwal's decision yesterday, saying, ``as there is no possibility to accommodate this situation, the minister was absolutely right to close the fishing in the Miramichi Bay and he is absolutely right to ensure that every fisherman in that area respects the law of Canada.''

Burnt Church claims that a 240-year-old treaty, backed up by a Supreme Court decision, gives it the right to set its own fishing rules in Miramichi Bay.

Dhaliwal says he has full authority to manage all Canadian waters and that people here can't fish for lobster outside the regular season.

A federal court yesterday backed up Dhaliwal's view, refusing to grant an injunction against the Department of Fisheries and Oceans that would have prevented it from seizing lobster traps belonging to the Indian Brook First Nation.

Indian Brook Chief Reg Maloney immediately vowed to appeal the ruling to the Federal Appeal Court and the band voted unanimously during a late yesterday to continue to fish out of season and without DFO tags.

Supporters from around the country began to flood into Burnt Church last night.

One group travelled 42 hours by bus from Manitoba to get here. More than a dozen chiefs flew in from British Columbia and Alberta.

Dozens of cars arrived with supporters from the Atlantic region, including the chief of the Listuguj First Nation and many people from Big Cove, eastern Canada's largest reserve.


With files from William Walker in Ottawa, and Canadian Press