Native lobster dispute far from over

The London Free Press
Tuesday, December 26, 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 Miramichi Bay, where federal fisheries officers and native fishers 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 seek 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 to soften 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 said. 

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.” 

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. 

Mike Belliveau of the Maritime Fishermens’ Union, which represents non- native fishers, thinks it may be time for a new fisheries minister. 

“Generally speaking, native affairs have been on the back burner in this country,” Belliveau said. “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.”