Natives hold out against temptation

KELLY TOUGHILL
National Post
Saturday, March 31, 2001

BURNT CHURCH, N.B. It cost Ottawa lmost $200 million to buy a short-term, partial peace in this region’s battle over native rights. 

That peace dies today, when 28 fishery agreements with native bands expire. Striking new deals – and keeping the war over native rights from spreading – will be much harder and much more expensive this year than last. Citing centuries-old treaties, two bands in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick fished lobster outside the normal commercial season last year and the year before. That led to violent confrontations on and off the water as federal officers tried to seize native lobster traps and boats. Images of federal patrol boats running over native dories, and native fishermen diving into the water to escape, were broadcast around the world. But while the Burnt Church and Indian Brook first nations were becoming international symbols for aboriginal rights, most other bands in this region were quietly signing deals that saw Ottawa buy them boats, cars, warehouses, gear and fishing licences if the bands agreed to follow federal fishing rules. Fisheries Minister Herb Dhaliwal had up to $192 million to spend. Some activists warned that signing the deals would hurt court battles for native rights, but in communities with an average unemployment rate of 80 per cent and chronic housing shortages, the “interim fishing agreements,” as they were called, were hard to resist. The Tobique First Nation is a landlocked Maliseet band in New Brunswick that is hundreds of kilometres from the ocean. The reserve has a legendary drug and alcohol abuse problem, an abysmal job rate and too few houses for too many people. Even so, people there voted against signing one of the lucrative deals last summer. In November, the chief signed it anyway. The chief got roughly $7 million to spend over four months, including $85,000 for new vehicles, about $1 million for four lobster boats and a tuna boat, another million bucks to build a fish centre on Grand Manan Island and a further $1.4 million to build one on the reserve. He got $160,000 just to buy equipment to truck their boats from the Bay of Fundy to the reserve. It is no wonder that 28 of the 34 Maritime bands signed deals. The amazing thing is that Indian Brook and Burnt Church, which are just as poor as the other reserves, did not. Ottawa wants new deals now, preferably three-year agreements. But there is new pressure for the other bands to follow the defiant lead set by Indian Brook and Burnt Church. The most influential native-rights lawyer in the region has urged the chiefs not to sign any new deals, calling this “do-or-die time.” The chief of Indian Brook has called on other chiefs not to sign the deals, saying that will hurt his community’s legal battle against Ottawa. Burnt Church and Indian Brook won a lot of glory for their fight last year. Few chiefs want to become the poster boy for co-operation with an agency that was vilified for running over native fishermen in dories. The chiefs sent a get-tough memo to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans last week, expressing their solidarity. While not refusing to ever sign again, they made it clear that the same old terms – rich as they were – would not do. In Burnt Church and Indian Brook, few seem exhausted by this 19-month-long battle. More than 100 men and women in the two communities – including many of their key leaders – have been charged in connection with the fight. And almost no one has made any money fishing. Profits were spent replacing traps and gear seized by federal officers. Fishery officers seized every single boat that Indian Brook used to catch lobster, and all but the smallest dories used by Burnt Church. Two weeks ago, the Department of Indian Affairs seized control of the key bank accounts of the Burnt Church reserve. Citing the band’s enduring deficit, the department has invoked a law that allows it to put an outside accountant in charge of all band spending. The mood should be bleak here, but it isn’t. The band recently trained 30 new volunteer “rangers” to patrol the waters against both poachers and fishery officers. Pictures of the rangers’ graduation ceremony at the local school are passed around proudly at Lucy’s truck stop, near the edge of the reserve. One picture shows a line of grimacing men and women in uniform thrusting black batons at an invisible enemy. Another shows the rangers grappling each other to the floor of the school gym as old men and women applaud from folding chairs set against the wall. A third shows the rangers in a school hallway, a menacing wedge of black caps and black T-shirts jammed against a bouquet of pink and yellow paper balloons crafted by little children. The fight over native fishing rights has become part of the rhythm of the seasons here. The ice on Miramichi Bay is just softening now, but by the time the water is warm and the lobsters come close to shore, as kids get ready to start a new school year, people here expect to take to their dories to fish – and to fight with the fisheries department. The fact that Burnt Church has no money for traps, that key leaders are spending all their days in court and that the new rangers have no speed boats to catch up to fishery officers, doesn’t seem to trouble the customers at Lucy’s. It is no longer a question of if here, but when. People simply assume that as summer wanes, the band will once again be fishing. “Of course we will fish,” Lucy says when asked if the community is tired of the fight, if it is ready to accept the millions of dollars Ottawa will pay if only Burnt Church will agree to fish in the regular season. “No one here wants to sign.”