Atlantic natives say fishing agreements limit treaty rights, don’t sign new deals 

The Canadian Press
Monday April 2, 2001

HALIFAX (CP) — The federal government and native bands throughout Atlantic Canada were no closer Monday to resolving a dispute over fishing deals as their expiry date came and went without one of the 35 bands signing new agreements. 

Native leaders refused to sign the deals which ran out on March 31, arguing the wording of the pacts compromised age-old treaty rights to fish. 

They submitted their own version of the deals to Ottawa, but said the Department of Fisheries and Oceans wouldn’t approve them, marking a deepening rift between the two sides as opening dates for some of the most lucrative and contested fishing seasons approach. 

“There’s got to be something wrong with them (DFO) if they know there could be violence on the water and they won’t sign,” Chief Lawrence Paul of the Atlantic Policy Congress, a native group, said Friday. “People aren’t signing their agreements because we’re afraid that we’ll be deteriorating our treaty right.” 

Paul, chief of the Millbrook band near Truro, N.S., says Ottawa has snubbed natives in drafting management plans for the fishery, which was at the centre of several violent confrontations last summer and spring. 

The deals, reported to be worth about $500 million in federal funding over three years, would provide the bands with training, gear and boats primarily for the lobster fishery. 

All but two of the region’s bands signed one-year deals last year worth more than $200 million in boats, wharves, training and lobster pots. Federal Fisheries Minister Herb Dhaliwal has said those framework agreements will still enable natives to fish as seasons start opening in the coming weeks. 

DFO will also provide required tags for lobster pots, but natives won’t have access to any new gear unless they sign deals. 

Natives, who have been talking off and on with federal negotiator James MacKenzie to hammer out deals, say the proposed agreements don’t address the issue of long-term joint management of the resource. 

The chiefs, who issued a statement of solidarity weeks ago, want bands to have access and control over fishing resources without Dhaliwal’s “interference.” 

But Dhaliwal says he has made it clear in correspondence that their centuries-old rights will not be compromised through the agreements. 

“I’ve written a letter and changed the template to make it clear that signing an agreement does not in any way extinguish their aboriginal or treaty right,” he said in an interview Friday. 

“I don’t know what more I can do to give them that assurance. I don’t think I can go beyond what I’ve already done.” 

A lawyer for the natives advised them not to sign the agreements, fearing they could limit their rights and be used against them in future court cases. 

Lawyer Bruce Wildsmith has said MacKenzie has limited authority to renegotiate aboriginal or treaty rights because the Supreme Court of Canada already recognized the 1760 treaties in its Donald Marshall decision of 1999. 

Natives had asked to meet with lawyers for DFO, but Dhaliwal said the issue should be resolved between government and native leaders, not legal representatives. 

Both sides say they are hoping to prevent the violence that erupted on fishing grounds in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia last year. 

Natives from the Burnt Church band in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia’s Indian Brook band had angry confrontations with DFO officials when they fished out of season and without official lobster tags.