Five native bands relent, may accept Ottawa rules

Toronto Star
Saturday, May 12, 2001

HALIFAX – Five Maritime bands are ready to sign fishing agreements with Ottawa, breaking a tense standoff with the federal government over native fishing rights.

Fisheries Minister Herb Dhaliwal has pushed for agreements that would see native people fish within federal rules in exchange for Ottawa paying for boats, training, gear and fishing licences. 

But dozens of native chiefs vowed earlier this year not to sign the controversial agreements, saying the deals might dilute rights recently upheld by the Supreme Court of Canada. 

However, one band in Quebec’s Gasp* region signed a deal with Ottawa this week, and four other bands have agreed in principle to the deals. 

One of the region’s most powerful native leaders says he, too, may sign on. 

Chief Lawrence Paul, co-chair of the Atlantic Policy Congress of First Nations, said he is waiting for a final negotiating session on May 25 to see whether he likes the wording of the proposed agreement. 

“We like what we have so far, but we will have to see,” he said. 

Paul was one of the first leaders to sign an agreement last year, but urged fellow chiefs not to sign this year, saying the agreements might threaten treaty rights. 

But Paul said the new mood of co-operation stems from a change in the way the agreements are worded. 

New wording makes it clear the agreements aren’t an attempt to barter away rights set out in a 1761 treaty, he said. 

The last two summers have seen violence in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia as two bands tried to prove their right to fish for profit outside federal regulations. Other bands pledged solidarity, saying they would not sign deals with Ottawa. 

The Supreme Court ruled in 1999 that Mi’kmaq, Maliseet and Passamaquoddy people have a treaty right to fish for profit. 

The decision left the lobster fishery mired in confusion as natives, local fishermen and the federal government tried to figure out what the ruling meant.