Native fisheries battle cost feds $13 million

The Toronto Star
Wednesday, April 4, 2001

OTTAWA. The federal Fisheries Department spent $13 million trying to stop native fishermen from taking lobster off Burnt Church, N.B., and Indian Brook, N.S., last year. 

Fisheries Minister Herb Dhaliwal revealed the figure at a Commons committee Tuesday. It does not include the cost of a sizable RCMP role in confrontations over native fishing rights, the minister said. The money is separate from other enforcement budgets, coming directly from $160 million allocated to address a Supreme Court of Canada decision recognizing 240-year-old treaty rights, he told the fisheries committee. The minister also rejected a demand by Atlantic chiefs to negotiate a single fisheries agreement on behalf of the region’s 35 bands. ”There can be no one-size-fits-all approach to the agreements we want to negotiate,” Dhaliwal said. ”We want First Nations to bring their individual capacity-building and co-management needs and desires forward to the negotiation table so we can tailor each agreement to those needs.” The pronouncement came hours after the Atlantic Policy Congress of First Nation Chiefs issued a statement accusing Dhaliwal of ”economic and social blackmail” by trying to extract treaty rights for fisheries access. 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. The congress on Tuesday urged the minister to deal with the Mi’kmaq, Maliseet and Passamaquoddy nations, not individual bands. The federal objective, said the statement, is to divide and conquer. ”The Atlantic chiefs are currently weighing options to sign interim agreements with (the department),” said the chiefs. ”Some First Nation leaders are considering signing under extreme duress to help the lives of First Nation members.” The national Assembly of First Nations backed the chiefs in their call for broader negotiations. ”It’s up to the federal government to change their strategy in dealing with our people,” Ovide Mercredi, the assembly’s special adviser on treaty issues, said outside Tuesday’s committee hearing. ”They have to come up with a plan that recognizes our rights, not with a plan that diminishes them.” All but two bands signed interim deals last year providing boats, wharves, training and lobster pots. Dhaliwal said those framework agreements will still enable natives to fish in coming weeks. The department will also provide required tags for lobster pots, but natives won’t have access to any new gear unless they sign deals. ”We don’t need signed agreements in order to have a peaceful, orderly fishery this summer,” Dhaliwal said. ”The opening of the spring fisheries does not mean that the negotiating window is closed. ”We are not operating under any deadline.” But Noah Augustine, an assembly representative and adviser to some communities, said Tuesday an absence of agreement will mean ”chaos” in the native fishery. ”We’re anticipating the same amount of turmoil that was experienced . . . last season” when natives and federal officers clashed on the high seas. 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. Said Dhaliwal: ”We’ve made it clear that our goal is not to extinguish any rights or to prevent them from taking positions in future negotiations.”