Ottawa favours talks on native fishery
By JOSIPA PETRUNIC
Globe and Mail
Friday, June 7, 2001
While the federal Indian Affairs minister argued Thursday that fishing rights for natives in Atlantic Canada should not be settled in the court room, opposition MPs criticized him for going about negotiations the wrong way.
Robert Nault, the federal Indian Affairs minister, told a committee on fisheries and oceans that he wants to settle the issue of native fishing rights on Canada’s east coast in a way that avoids lawsuits and courts.
Mr. Nault told the committee his negotiation process is based on a 1999 Supreme Court ruling known as the Marshall decision, which recognized the right of natives to fish for eel.
He said it stands to reason if the courts were willing to rule in favour of native fishing rights in the Marshall case, they would do so in others. The government must interpret the decision in a broad context to avoid future conflict over native fishing rights, he said.
But Alliance MP John Cummins said from Ottawa that logic is flawed. The Court’s decision, he said, was only on the matter of hunting eel — not lobster, or other fish.
Mr. Cummins also said there is no evidence — historical or cultural ‹ among Mi’kmaq people or other First Nations groups in Atlantic Canada that prove lobster fishing was an integral part of their society prior to contact with Europeans in the mid-1700s.
Because of that lack of evidence, Mr. Cummins said, native treaty rights do not extend to lobster hunting. Mr. Cummins said native fishers should abide by the same rules as other fishers in the region.
Peter Stoffer, an NDP member, also criticized Mr. Nault, saying he has not created the proper forum in which to discuss native fishing rights.
Mr. Stoffer said the government is using “messengers” — two lawyers who were appointed in February — to run between the aboriginal groups and federal officials as its negotiating process, rather than creating a much-needed forum.
Those two “messengers” are lawyer Thomas Molloy, who helps to negotiate aboriginal and treaty rights, and James MacKenzie, who negotiates native fisheries agreements of one to three years.
But Mr. Stoffer said the ministers need to set up a forum where all 34 native bands involved, along with federal and provincial officials, can meet and talk to each other face to face. Without a forum, he said, not everyone will be heard, and protests such as those that occurred last year in Burnt Church, N.B. will crop up again.
Burnt Church is a town of about 1,300 of mostly aboriginal people. Last September, the fishers there argued they had a treaty right to fish for lobster out of season so that they can earn a livelihood.
Lobster season varies throughout the Atlantic — in some regions it runs November to May, in others from May to June. The fishing season in a given area depends on when the lobster are spawning. Trapping is disallowed during those periods, but native fishers in Burnt Church argued they have a treaty right to fish throughout the year.
They based their argument on treaties signed in 1760, which give them a right to maintain a livelihood by hunting local resources.
The community gained national attention after the Department of Fisheries and Oceans started pulling out native lobster traps, leading to violent clashes between department officers and aboriginals.
Mr. Nault has said his negotiations are supposed to avoid similar conflicts in the future. But Canadian Alliance members criticized him for going too far in trying to appease native communities.