Chief sees ‘giant leap’ in federal stance on native fisheries

The Telegraph Journal
Tuesday, April 24, 2001

HALIFAX. Native leaders praised a concession by the federal government Monday that they say could finally end a lengthy impasse over disputed fishing agreements. 

Chiefs and legal experts were studying a new document containing revised language that natives had been pressing Ottawa to change if it wanted a resolution to stalled fishery discussions. 

“It’s a giant leap compared to what has happened in our relationship with the government,” said Terry Paul, chief of the Membertou reserve in Sydney, N.S.

“I feel very encouraged and I think [the rest of the chiefs] feel the same as I do. I would call it nervous optimism.” 

The document, called a template agreement, sets out some of the conditions governing potential fishing deals between Ottawa and the 34 native bands in Atlantic Canada and Quebec. 

Each native band will determine the specifics of the deals, which are reportedly valued at about $500 million over several years and include money for training and gear. 

But they first have to agree to the language of the template, which originally didn’t include terminology natives said was needed to protect what they consider to be their traditional rights to resources. 

Bruce Wildsmith, the natives’ lawyer, said the new agreement could protect them in any future court case, and makes it clear that natives will not diminish any of their inherent rights. 

It states that natives will not relinquish their rights, something Mr. Wildsmith said wasn’t included in the previous version. T

he agreement also symbolizes an important concession on the part of federal Fisheries Minister Herb Dhaliwal, who has insisted he has the right to regulate the fishery regardless of native rights, Mr. Wildsmith said. 

“I think there has been some significant shift in their position,” Mr. Wildsmith said in Halifax. 

“It’s finally Mr. Dhaliwal acknowledging that he doesn’t have the mandate to deal with rights-based negotiations.” 

Native leaders say the changes will likely clear the way for the region’s 34 native bands to sign fishing deals, an ongoing irritant in relations between aboriginals and Ottawa. 

The two sides have been trying to reach an agreement over the contentious issue for months, but have been stuck on the wording. Native leaders will now take the document back to their communities to be reviewed and then consider whether to sign new fishing deals. 

A spokeswoman for DFO wouldn’t comment on the new agreement while the bands are still studying it. 

Mr. Wildsmith, who had initially advised the bands not to sign the template, said this one offers “enough comfort to those communities that want to sign agreements.” 

That could stem some of the violence that erupted on the fishing grounds in Miramichi Bay in New Brunswick and in Nova Scotia’s St. Mary’s Bay last summer.

Native fishermen clashed with DFO officials for fishing out of season and without the proper DFO tags.