Countdown to confrontation – With no agreement in sight, Burnt Church natives again prepare to fish lobster 

By CHRIS MORRIS – Canadian Press
Telegraph Journal
Monday, July 16, 2001

FREDERICTON. The countdown to confrontation on New Brunswick’s Miramichi Bay has begun. Mi’kmaq fishermen are set to head out on the bay’s choppy waters in mid-August and start fishing for lobster under their own rules, stubbornly defying Ottawa and the federal fisheries department. 

“We’re going fishing,” states Brian Bartibogue, a band councillor at the Burnt Church reserve, which sits on the shore of Miramichi Bay in northeastern New Brunswick. 

“We know the police and fisheries officers are gearing up for trouble, but what else can we do? Why are we branded as criminals for trying to survive by fishing in our own backyard?”

This is the third year of an impasse between the Mi’kmaq reserve of about 1,400 people and the fisheries department. There is no solution in sight as yet another native fishing season approaches. 

“The same dynamics are at play,” says fisheries spokesman Andre Marc Lanteigne. 

In 1999, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that Donald Marshall Jr., a Mi’kmaq from Nova Scotia, had a treaty right to fish eels. It also said the Mi’kmaq, Maliseet and Passamaquoddy bands can hunt, fish and gather to earn a moderate livelihood, within rules set by Ottawa. 

Federal negotiators have been trying ever since to set parameters acceptable to First Nations, non- native fishermen and others with interests in the fishery. 

They are working to strike new deals with 34 Atlantic First Nations to replace one-year interim agreements that expired last March. 

To date, seven bands have signed deals and seven others have reached agreements in principle. 

But not Burnt Church, where Mr. Bartibogue admitted there is bitterness over the lack of resolve in other Atlantic bands. 

“It’s pretty hard to take, especially when the same ones signing these deals are telling us to keep up the good fight, that we’re standing up for native rights,” Mr. Bartibogue says. 

The bands signing agreements say they need the money. 

Ottawa spent nearly $200 million last year buying out non-native licences and offering boats, equipment and training to bring First Nations into the East Coast fishery following the Supreme Court ruling. 

The deals being offered this year are reportedly valued in total at about $500 million over several years and include money for training and gear. 

There will also be more money spent on enforcement. 

Last year, the federal fisheries department spent $13 million on enforcement against the people of Burnt Church and the Indian Brook band in Nova Scotia, which also set illegal lobster traps. 

At Burnt Church, the impasse led to dangerous confrontations on the water. Several times from August to October, fisheries officers raided waters near the reserve and confiscated illegal traps. Native warriors and fishermen responded by racing out in boats to try and protect the traps. Rocks were thrown, boats were rammed, there were several injuries and numerous charges were laid against natives under the Fisheries Act and the Criminal Code. Most of those charges are still working their way through the courts. 

The situation this year could be made worse by a decline in the lobster catch during the authorized, commercial season which ended in June. 

Mike Belliveau of the Maritime Fishermens’ Union, which represents non-native fishermen in the Miramichi area, says the catch was down by about 15 per cent from the previous year. 

Mr. Belliveau says commercial fishermen have no tolerance for a second, commercial season run exclusively by, and for, native people. 

“There’s no tolerance for that. Zero,” he says. 

Mr. Belliveau says he can’t believe anyone has the stomach for more violence, although he believes there are troublemakers on the reserve. “Nobody is interested in going through last year’s business again,” 

Mr. Belliveau says. “I can’t see why Burnt Church would be interested either. There are a few who get caught up in these kinds of things, but I can’t imagine the community is interested in doing that again.” 

Mr. Bartibogue insists the community as a whole is interested in defending its treaty right to make a worthwhile life for its people, instead of relying on welfare. “Canada is considered one of the best countries in the world in which to live, unless you’re aboriginal,” he says. 

“There’s no work and our children are suffering. But Canadians seem to accept that as the status quo for aboriginal people, the norm. Come live here for a week and you’ll be ready to fish for lobster next month.”