HALIFAX. The departments of Indian Affairs and Fisheries have earmarked $500 million to help natives in the fishery and expand reserves throughout Atlantic Canada, sources confirmed Tuesday. The fund, to be spread out over three years, is expected to be announced within two weeks, said the source, adding it has been approved by an ad hoc cabinet committee and was to go to cabinet for discussion this week.
Federal Fisheries Minister Herb Dhaliwal wouldn’t confirm the fund, but said he plans on making an announcement soon on how the department will handle the native fishery.
“Sometime next week we hope we can provide a more expansive direction on where we’re going,” Dhaliwal said Tuesday in Ottawa after the throne speech. “But right now would be premature.”
Matthew Coon Come, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said in Ottawa he welcomes the funding.
“I think it’s an opportunity to . . . alleviate and avoid the situation of Burnt Church and work toward a solution,” he said, referring to the violence that marred that New Brunswick reserve last year over native fishing.
“I hope I’ll be able to go and talk about the protection, the management of those resources, look at First Nations’ own management plans, and look at how we can share in the wealth of that resource and be able to stimulate our own economies.”
The main component of the strategy deals with getting more natives into the fishery by purchasing licences and paying for training, said one source.
They also said some of the money will used to buy land to expand reserves in need of more space.
Money will also be used internally at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans for salaries and other expenses related to the implementation of the Marshall decision, the source said.
The man whose case sparked the national debate over treaty rights said Tuesday that Ottawa’s handling of the issue through interim agreements has caused conflict within the bands.
“A lot of chiefs are divided,” Donald Marshall said at a banquet in Halifax.
“They all disagree. The damage is done.”
Marshall, who was struggling with pneumonia, said Ottawa also doesn’t hand out properly the money included in fishing deals.
“Interim agreements are fine as long as everyone in the community benefits and not just a select few,” he said. “There is a lot of gossip and it is not good. It divides us more.”
The federal fund arose out of a 1999 Supreme Court of Canada ruling that Mi’kmaq and Maliseet bands in Atlantic Canada and Quebec have the right to earn a moderate living from hunting, fishing and gathering.
The court issued a subsequent clarification that said DFO had the right to regulate the resources.
Some native leaders were skeptical of the initiative, saying they would like to see Ottawa not tie the funding to particular economic opportunities and allow natives to determine where it should be spent.
“Let the Mi’kmaq be self-determining and see what they can do with that money,” said Bernd Christmas, a native lawyer and negotiator.
“It’s great that $500 million is coming into the economy, but let’s make sure it gets there.”
The federal government is trying to come up with a strategy to deal with the native fishery before the spring lobster seasons open on the East Coast.
The fund continues a federal effort began last year to improve native access to the fishery through interim agreements that expire in March. The deals, which provided training, equipment and licences to native bands, cost Ottawa $160 million.
Dhaliwal said he hopes all 34 Atlantic bands will sign the deals that will likely last three to five years, but said he realizes some might hold out.
Burnt Church in New Brunswick and the Indian Brook band in Nova Scotia both refused to sigh the deals, claiming they undermined inherent aboriginal treaty right to the fishery.
DFO officials and native fishermen clashed violently last summer and fall, as natives from both reserves defied Ottawa by fishing out of season and without federal tags.
Natives say they’re hoping to prevent more confrontations on the water by trying to develop a national fishery strategy, which they plan to submit to Ottawa.
Aboriginal leaders from across the country were meeting in Halifax on Tuesday to come up with the strategy that will deal with treaty implementation and fishing rights.