We in Wisconsin have been following the Mi’kmaq treaty conflict at Burnt Church, N.B., very closely. The Maritimes dispute has close echoes of the intense conflict over Chippewa (Ojibwa) spearfishing in northern Wisconsin in the late 1980s and early 1990s. If you substitute “walleye” for “lobsters” it all sounds regrettably familiar.

There are 861 lakes in Wisconsin where the highly prized walleyed pike spawn in the territory the

Chippewa ceded to the American government in the 19th century — roughly the northern third of the state.

Sport fishermen take much of the catch and that’s a major source of the regional economy. After a 1983 federal court decision upholding Ojibwa rights to fish for walleye in traditional fishing grounds before the sport season opened, there was outrage among non-natives.

Militant anti-treaty groups began to carry signs reading “Spear an Indian — Save a W&lleye.” Some state political leaders inflamed public opinion with their claim that the Ojibwa (who never took more than 3 per cent of the walleye) would “rape” the fishery, and they tried, unsuccessfully, to divide Ojibwa bands from each other.

Throughout the late 1980s Wisconsin anti-treaty mobs committed numerous acts of violence — including rock-throwing, swamping of Ojibwa boats, death threats, and pipe bombings. Riot-clad police and National Guard helicopters were deployed at the lakes, and Witnesses for Nonviolence monitored harassment of Ojibwa spearfishers and their families. A federal court injunction eventually prevented anti-Indian groups from harassing Ojibwa as they were merely exercising their rights.

The major difference between Wisconsin and New Brunswick is that here in the States it was the anti-Indian citizen or vigilante groups that swamped the native boats and threatened fishermen’s lives. At Burnt Church it has seemed that the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans has taken on this role. Seeing the DFO’s actions on our TV has seriously undermined many Americans’ image of Canada as a “peaceful” and “inclusive” society — an image that we value as a counterpoint to our sometimes violent and intolerant society.

The environmentalist facade of Wisconsin anti-treaty groups fell away in the early 1990s when mining companies such as Noranda and Rio Algom started coming into the north woods looking for metallic sulfide minerals. This type of mining can release sulfuric acid into trout streams. For a while, the anti-treaty groups still chose to blame the Ojibwa for all rural environmental and economic problems. But many other non-Indian fishing groups began to get wise. They made an effort to understand the history of the treaties, the tribal respect for the environment, and the threat that metallic sulfide mines would pose to fishing by natives and non-natives alike.

These fishing groups and the tribes began to realize that instead of arguing over the fish, they could come together to protect the fish from a common outside threat. Today, Wisconsin has a strong inter-ethnic alliance of tribes, fishing groups, and environmentalists opposed to metallic sulfide mining, particularly Rio Algom’s proposed Crandon mine next to the Mole Lake Ojibwe Reservation. The alliance has won some victories to protect the fisheries by throwing the mining companies out of Wisconsin.

Just as, in Wisconsin, anti-treaty groups focused more attention on the Ojibwa than on the mining companies, the DFO focuses more attention on lobster harvested by one Mi’kmaq band than on the numerous environmental threats to the entire North Atlantic ecology. We trust that the people of the Maritimes and the rest of Canada will also get wise to this new anti-aboriginal campaign as a diversion from the real environmental problems facing marine life. After all, they face human beings of all nationalities.

Just as Wisconsin state officials attempted to “lease” treaty rights from Ojibwa bands, provincial and federal officials hope that all Mi’kmaq bands will sign away their rights in return for peace. But peace is shortlived in the absence of justice. Isolating or criminalizing aboriginal leaders only divides and destabilizes aboriginal bands, and undermines chances for peace. Besides, in Wisconsin, yesterday’s tribal “renegades” have become today’s respected tribal government leaders. And the Ojibwa can finally fish in peace.

Wisconsin Indians and rural whites have found they had more in common with each other than they had with government or corporate officials. Now the neighboring communities of the Maritimes need to search for local solutions without outside interference or manipulation. Scapegoating the First Nations lobster fishermen does not address the sources of the economic crisis affecting all fishing people in the region.

Fisheries Minister Herb Dhaliwal has only exacerbated a physical conflict between two communities that are both going through hard times; in our view, he should resign.

The assertion of Wisconsin Ojibwa treaty rights in the short term created conflict between natives and non-natives, but in the long term it helped to build cultural understanding, economic cooperation, and a common environmental identity. The treaties became a key legal tool to protect natural resources, and reservation sovereignty became a political lever to gain economic development for natives and nonnatives alike.

The Mi’kmaq are able to get their perspective heard, and people around the world concerned about human and sovereign rights are listening. Here in the States we join the many voices urging a peaceful resolution of the tense situation in Burnt Church and the rest of the Maritimes, and an honourable recognition of Mi’kmaq treaty rights.