Fishing fight flares up again
Armed warriors chase officers off Miramichi Bay
Toronto Star Atlantic Canada Bureau
Tuesday, September 26, 2000
BURNT CHURCH, N.B. - Native warriors armed with rifles and buckets of Molotov cocktails chased federal fishery officers off the waters of Miramichi Bay yesterday.
It was the latest skirmish in a long-running battle over native fishing rights that has flared into violence several times this year.
The cat-and-mouse game between fishery officers and native boats came just hours after fishery officers reported hearing shots fired from the shore of the reserve.
And it came just two days after the band and council vowed not to confront fishery officials on the water.
Seven boats carrying a total of 36 people yesterday tried to intercept 14 high-speed fishery boats as they pulled up native lobster traps near the shore of the reserve.
Three of the boats carried two dozen warriors dressed in fatigues, many of them with black balaclavas covering their faces. Two sources told The Star they saw rifles and buckets of homemade gasoline bombs loaded aboard a warrior's boat.
James Ward wrote Burnt Church's controversial fishing plan. He also leads the faction of warriors who challenged federal fishery officers yesterday on the water. He refused to comment on weapons they carried on board.
``It is a new dynamic, this great amount of warriors on boats compared to before when it was only a few of us,'' Ward said yesterday.
``I think (fishery officers) would be more willing now to draw their weapons and I do expect some kind of confrontation. I really do think somebody is going to get hurt.''
Just days ago, Chief Wilbur Dedam and band councillors asked the community not to confront patrol boats on the water, saying the clashes had simply become too dangerous.
Yesterday several people argued with warriors on the wharf, urging them to stay on shore. But when they left, many people - including Chief Dedam - followed.
Asked why they went out anyway, councillor Brian Bartibogue said, ``Because we felt like it.''
Karen Somerville, the official band spokesperson, seemed perplexed by the show of force from her reserve after leaders' pleas for peace. ``I can't explain it,'' she said.
The mood here changed dramatically in the last few days, switching from a grim resignation to a renewed defiance.
Several people cheered from shore as the gray fishery boats were chased away.
Only 12 days left in band's lobster season
The band has only 12 days left to fish before its self-imposed finish to its lobster season.
Burnt Church has been fighting for the right to control its own fishery. It wants to fish lobster in the summer and fall. Commercial fishermen are only allowed to fish lobster in the spring. They complain that fall fishing will destroy lobster stocks because the lobster are molting and vulnerable to overfishing at this time of year.
Fisheries Minister Herb Dhaliwal has repeatedly vowed to stop native people from fishing outside the regular season, saying the band must recognize Ottawa's authority over the water.
Bob Allain, of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, said his officers seized more than 300 lobster traps in Miramichi Bay yesterday during three separate raids that began at 2 a.m. and ended 12 hours laters.
Ovide Mercredi, of the Assembly of First Nations, returned here yesterday, saying he was wanted to be close by during the band's time of crisis. ``What the (Department of Fisheries and Oceans) is doing is provocation,'' he said yesterday.
``It is provocation to come in this close to shore. There is no need to do that.''
Both Mercredi and others downplayed reports of gunfire yesterday morning. RCMP officials said they could not confirm that the sounds heard by their own officers about 5:30 a.m. were gunshots.
But Allain, of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, said his officers are sure they heard two gunshots early yesterday morning as they were pulling native traps out of the bay.