Anger flares over native fishing: Coon Come blasts top court for `cowardly judicial retreat’ 

Saturday, February 3, 2001

HALIFAX – Canada’s top native leader accused the Supreme Court of cowardice and discrimination yesterday and compared the federal government to racists in the deep South. 

Matthew Coon Come, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, blasted both the federal government and the court over how they have handled the explosive issue of native fishing rights on the East Coast.The court’s clarification of a controversial ruling on the issue was a “cowardly judicial retreat” because the court “was intimidated by the intense violent reaction from non-native Canadians on the East Coast,” Coon Come told 600 chiefs gathered here to discuss fishery issues.“This was a textbook case of recognition of rights being made subject to mob rule,” he said.“If non-native mobs object and make their objections violently known, instead of the court strengthening and reinforcing its ruling, the Supreme Court . . . beat a retreat.”The Supreme Court ruled in 1999 that Mi’kmaq and Maliseet people have the right to earn a “moderate livelihood” from commercial fishing.That ruling prompted hundreds of native people to join the lucrative lobster fishery, and sparked a sometimes violent backlash from non-native fishermen who have long controlled the lobster grounds.More than 100 commercial fishermen destroyed native lobster traps in Miramichi, N.B., prompting three days of violence in the community of Burnt Church.Weeks after the initial ruling, the court issued a rare clarification of its decision that seemed to restrict the newly recognized native rights.But even the broader first ruling was unfair, Coon Come told the crowd, because it limited native people to earning a “moderate livelihood” of bare necessities from fishing.“I cannot imagine another non-native group, whether it be Italians, Greeks or Jews, that would accept a ruling where they are told you have a right to a moderate living,” he added.“I find this particular approach discriminatory. How can our societies develop and thrive without amassing any wealth? Wealth creates surpluses. Surpluses can provide for bad times.”Coon Come’s harshest comments were saved for the federal government, which ordered fishery officers to seize native lobster traps in Miramichi Bay last summer.The conflict between the Burnt Church First Nation, which wanted to follow its own fishery plan, and fishery officers, who were enforcing federal fishery regulations, repeatedly turned violent. Federal speedboats ran over several smaller native boats during high-speed chases on the bay.Coon Come compared the fight over native fishing rights to the civil rights battles of the 1960s in the United States, when the Supreme Court ordered white schools to accept African-American students.In the United States, the federal government sided with African-Americans who won the court battle, sending in troops to escort black children to formerly all-white schools.But the Canadian government has allied itself with those who opposed the Supreme Court decision affirming native rights, Coon Come said.“Did the U.S. federal government go around to black communities and try to get them to agree to limit their rights in the constitution so as not to anger the mobs?” he asked.“Did the U.S. federal government send in its troops to beat the black people into accepting that they could not go to school? No. The United States government sent in troops to escort black children to the schools of their choice, to protect them from the angry white mob so they could exercise their rights.“There is a point here to be made and understood by the federal government of Canada. When a government wishes to do so, it can take effective steps to ensure that those who wish to exercise full fundamental human rights are protected against a violent mob.“Faced with a favourable judgment for first nations, Canada reacted as though the disaster was the ruling itself because it upheld our rights, rather than the disaster being our social conditions and dispossession.”Coon Come’s fiery speech comes just two months before scores of native fishing agreements with the federal government expire.Most bands in Atlantic Canada had signed interim deals that gave them money, boats and training in exchange for promising to follow federal fishery regulations.Coon Come refused to say whether he thinks bands should sign new deals when the old ones expire on April 1.