The Mi’kmaq of Burch Church have “declared war” on the Department of Fisheries and Oceans after it seized over 700 lobster traps in a late night ocean raid Sunday August 13. Another 72 were seized without incident early the next morning. Native fishermen reported being held under guns while the officers seized traps, a charge the DFO denies.
The Burnt Church community response was swift. More than 20 cars and trucks sealed off New Brunswick’s Highway I I, a major commercial route. About 36 band members set a huge bonfire in the middle of the road. A second blockade was set up early Monday August 14 north of the Burnt Church community.
The clashes started earlier in the week when some DFO officers were pelted with fish guts in response to DFO officers who had nearly swamped a small boat. Native fishermen in the boat said their lives were in danger when it happened.
Burnt Church had earlier refused a deal from Canada involving $2.2 million for a new wharf, $300,000 for a new building and traps that had been destroyed earlier in the year, five fishing boats and licences for 40 lobster traps. Ottawa’s offer was rejected 308-28 in a Burnt Church plebiscite.
Some band members were dismayed to hear that DFO spokespeople said that natives are entitled to only 40 traps for food and ceremonial purposes. “That’s the Sparrow Decision, not the Marshell Decision,” one person said.
DFO spokesman Andre-Marc Lafonteigne said the department wants to sit down and talk to the chief and Burnt Church Mi’kmaqs. Lafonteigne said that the DFO doesn’t like to have confrontations with the “clients we serve.” He did admit pepper spray was used in one of the four arrests. All four Mi’kmaq men were charged with obstruction in court on Monday afternoon. A News Brunswick Court refused the request of the DFO to bar the four Natives from boating on the bay. A total of 60 officers in 15 boats took part in the raid.
The Atlantic Policy Congress, an aboriginal organization, will be meeting to decide how to react. One official, requesting anonymity, said that he felt the DFO was breaking the law in their actions and that “the federal government doesn’t want to give up control over Native peoples. They’re losing control and using public opinion and the media to keep that control.” He slammed media coverage saying “it would be nice to see someone’s viewpoint other than the government’s in the news.”
It’s an opinion that the Assembly of First Nations shares. “The [federal] government is very successful in spin doctoring Native issues,” said Bill Namagoose, Chief Executive Officer of the AFN. “They’re saying that if Native people fish, then we’ll fish out the stocks. In Labrador, where Natives are cutting, we’ll see CBC clips of trees falling, while if Irving gets cutting licenses then it’s good for the economy and jobs. He’s the dear-cutter, not small Native operators. It’s the same for the fishing. It all comes down to the access to natural resources, when the Native is involved r it’s always bad for the economy and the environment. We need to change that.”
National Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come dispatched Ovide Mercredi as a special AFN envoy to the Atlantic Region to investigate the actions of the DFO and to monitor future dealings with Burnt Church Natives.
DFO Spokesman Lafonteigne said that 34 bands have signed one-year interim agreements with the DFO. One such deal is the Big Cove agreement, consisting of $6.5 million, 23 lobster boats, 7,000 traps and I snow crab license for 150 tonnes. Lafonteigne holds out little hope that Burnt Church will see the same type of deal saying that there is a commercial plant in the Big Cove area whereas Burnt Church only has a food processing plant. Lafonteigne also says that to allow Burnt Church to fish outside the Canadian season would “lead to chaos.” On the declaration of war that the Burnt Church Natives have issued againt the DFO, Lafonteigne says “this is hard and difficult for us. DFO people have to live around here and we’re only doing our jobs.”
Burnt Church has help from the Listiguj First Nation Mi’kmaq band in the region. Six trucks showed up Monday from Listiguj with several boats in tow.