Tension continues to mount in New Brunswick over fears of violence relating to the lobster stand-off in Burnt Church. The federal government has criticised the Native community for refusing to negotiate and has announced it’s intention to place heavy limitations on the band’s lobster fishery.
New government restrictions will prohibit the Mi’kmaq from trapping lobsters for commercial reasons and they will only be permitted to trap until October 20. The official statement issued by Herb Dhaliwal, Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, sets out boundaries that serve to shrink the legal fishing area as well as the number of lobsters to be caught.
“It is deeply regrettable that Burnt Church First Nation has now withdrawn from dialogue and I hope this is not a sign that we are returning to another season of conflict,” the Minister said. Mr. Dhaliwal claimed that his department had tried to arrange a meeting to discuss government proposals that would permit the band to maintain a limited commercial fishery until October, but he had received no response.
Burnt Church Chief Wilbur Dedam did indeed respond, but not directly to the government. At a news conference, Chief Dedam explained that the offer was rejected since it contravenes constitutionally guaranteed rights that allow the band more freedom in its lobster trapping activities. Chief Dedam went on to suggest that the Burnt Church First Nation is not against entering discussions with the government, but they are “opposed to signing any federal interim agreement which fails to respect our aboriginal and treaty rights.”
Fears of violence center largely on growing tensions between Native and non-Native fishermen.
Non-Native fishermen worry that Native fishing activity in the fall will have an adverse affect on the spring catch and the lobster population on the whole. Some 20 non-Native boats had moved into waters off Burnt Church in a show of disapproval on August 26th. The non-Native fishermen had been accused of tampering with Native trap lines, but police monitoring the scene said they saw no signs of damage or direct confrontation.
On August 30th, Federal Fisheries Department officers seized lobster traps in what one band member referred to as an “act of agression.”
James Ward, a Mi’kmaq warrior, described the police action as a “hit-and run-operation. We’re still assessing the damage and exactly what happened.”
Though fisheries officials were unavailable for comment after the Thursday morning raid, a non-Native witness claimed to have seen some 50 traps removed by the officers. The action involved four fisheries patrol boats and happened too quickly for Native boats to respond.
The raid took place in waters off Burnt Church that Ottawa considers to be outside the legal fishing zone for the reserve of roughly 1,400 people, but the Mi’kmaq don’t recognize the newly imposed limit. The traps were taken from the outer ring of where most of the traps were set.
Though there was no confrontation arising from the most recent incidents, the band’s determination to maintain their fishing practices, the government’s insistence on enforcing restrictions, and resentment on the part of local non-Native fisherman have kept the everpresent fear of violence on the front burner.