Gun signals first shot in fishing war
Commercial boat hit by bullet near Burnt Church

Toronto Star Atlantic Canada Bureau
Saturday, September 23, 2000

BURNT CHURCH, N.B. - The first shot in the war over native fishing rights rang out over Miramichi Bay at 11 a.m. yesterday when a bullet pierced the wheelhouse of a commercial fishboat cruising near this reserve.

The shot was fired from the bow of the Blackie II, a boat used by the Burnt Church First Nation to count how many native lobster traps are in the water.

People on both boats yesterday described moments of terror; both said that they thought they were under attack.

``There better be something done because it's going to be a civil war,'' a crew member of the Gulf Mermaid told CTV news.

``They made the first move, so what are we going to do? We can't stand back and let them have a free-for-all.''

A man who was aboard the Blackie II during the confrontation told The Star last night that several Mi'kmaq people were counting traps from the Blackie II when three commercial boats headed toward the disputed lobster grounds.

They feared that the boats had come to follow through on public threats to destroy native traps, so they headed toward them, he said.

``We didn't know what they were doing so we turned around to find out and they started coming right at us.

He said a warrior from Big Cove, a Mi'kmaq reserve south of here, ran to the bow of the Blackie II carrying a rifle. Then shots rang out.

Crew of the Gulf Mermaid said the Blackie II shot two flares at them before shooting the rifle. The bullet pierced the wheelhouse and destroyed the boat's toilet. It missed a propane tank by only a few centimetres.

Burnt Church Chief Wilburn Dedam immediately condemned the violence, saying it was not endorsed in any way by his community.

``Any act of violence or aggression is condemned not only by me but by my community and all the people of good reason and good, sound judgment,'' he said.

A split has developed in this community between those who want to fight any attempt to regulate Burnt Church fishermen and those who want to use non-violent methods.

Yesterday, native activist Noah Augustine made a passionate plea for the warriors not to resort to violence, saying the Burnt Church community does not agree with their methods.

``Do not meet force with force,'' he told the crowd at a prayer vigil. ``That is not what this community wants.''

The shooting inflamed tensions on wharves around the region where commercial fishermen are docked.

In nearby Neguac, the mood was dark and ugly yesterday, where many were furious when Fisheries Minister Herb Dhaliwal failed to follow through on promises to sweep the bay of all native traps.

Dhaliwal set an 11 a.m. deadline yesterday for Burnt Church to remove all its lobster traps. Fishery officers removed 113 native traps from the bay late Thursday night, but there were still many hundreds of white buoys bobbing on the bay when the sun rose yesterday morning.

Richard Breau told The Star he is just one of hundreds of fishermen who are fed up with Ottawa's dithering on the issue.

Breau predicted that 500 boats will sail to Burnt Church this morning to remove traps if fishery officials haven't removed them overnight.

``Of course I will carry a gun,'' he said. ``And if they shoot, I will shoot back.''

Burnt Church is locked in a dispute with Ottawa over who has the power to regulate fishing. The band says it has a treaty right to set its own rules, and has authorized its fishermen to set lobster traps for two months in the summer and fall.

Ottawa says it has sole authority over the fishery, and that both native and non-native people here can fish for lobster only in the spring