Burnt Church not optimistic fishing dispute with Ottawa will be resolved
Monday December 18, 2000
FREDERICTON. With no resolution to a summer-long native fishing dispute that saw shots fired, lobster boats confiscated and charges laid, the defiant people of Burnt Church are bracing for another season of confrontation with Ottawa.
The northeastern New Brunswick reserve was one of two Mi’kmaq and Maliseet communities in Quebec and Atlantic Canada that refused to sign one-year fishing agreements with the federal government last year.
And the Miramichi Bay, where federal fisheries officers and native fishermen clashed almost daily throughout the summer, quickly became a symbol of the unfinished business between Canada and its aboriginal people.
But more than two months after the last traps were pulled out of the bay by natives, peace on the fishing grounds is no closer for 2001.
Adding to the pressure is the March expiration of the one-year agreements reached with the remaining 32 bands.
Federal negotiators are preparing for a new round of deal-making in accordance with a 1999 Supreme Court of Canada ruling that said Mi’kmaqs and Maliseets have a treaty right to earn a moderate livelihood from hunting, fishing and gathering.
Federal Fisheries Minister Herb Dhaliwal says he’ll be seeking longer-term arrangements with the East Coast bands-agreements that extend for at least three years.
”I’m not interested in dealing with this every year and I don’t think any fisheries minister would want to deal with it year by year and that’s why we need a longer-term plan,” he said.
But Dhaliwal doesn’t plan on softening his position on the two hold-outs, Burnt Church and Indian Brook, N.S.
”We can’t let one or two First Nations derail what is working very well for everyone else,” the minister says.
”Our negotiators would sit down right now with Burnt Church and Indian Brook, but they have to recognize there’s a role for me as a minister and we can only accomplish these things on a step-by-step basis.”
Brian Bartibogue, a Burnt Church band councillor, believes his Mi’kmaq community of about 1,300 people is being punished by the federal government for its stand against federal fishing control.
At the reserve’s front door sits the shimmering Miramichi Bay, the site of one of the Maritimes’ most lucrative lobster fisheries.
But on the reserve stalked by poverty and unemployment is a deep-rooted determination to defy the powers of the Canadian government. There’s no sign of that resolve crumbling as the spring lobster season approaches.
”The position of Burnt Church hasn’t changed,” Bartibogue said.
”Come the opening of the season, we’re going fishing. What’s our choice? Stay home on welfare? We have to do something,” he said.
Wilbur Dedam, chief of Burnt Church, said the people of Burnt Church believe their future is at stake, and they can’t trust Ottawa with their destiny.
”Fishing opens the door for us to make a living,” he said.
”We’re not asking the government to help us out. We’re just asking them to recognize our treaty and our management plan and work together. But the only way they want to work together is for them to decide when you can fish and where. It’s hard to deal with someone who holds all the cards.”
Mike Belliveau of the Maritime Fishermens’ Union, which represents non-native fishermen, thinks it may be time for a new minister of fisheries.
”Generally speaking, native affairs have been on the back burner in this country,” Belliveau says. ”It seems to me it requires a senior minister to take hold of the file and start it moving. A new fisheries minister probably makes sense at this stage.”
Belliveau says the patchwork of agreements signed last year and the failure to bring Burnt Church and Indian Brook in line, heightened tensions and anger in non-native fishing communities.
Among the failures was a mediation attempt by former Ontario premier Bob Rae to find a peaceful resolution between the people of Burnt Church and the federal government.
In December, the Indian Brook reserve filed suit against Ottawa for seizing its boats and fishing equipment last summer in the Bay of Fundy.
Belliveau says fishermen are worried about the state of the lobster stock. He warns that if there’s no settlement to the aboriginal fishing dispute, everyone may lose, including the prized lobster.
”There’s a lot of anxiety as to where this fishery will go with the kind of out-of-season fishing pressures the stock is now experiencing.”