Nova Scotia lobster war rages as native fishermen defy law

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The Independent US

The first fire at Burnt Church flared in 1758, when British troops set fire to an Acadian church while rounding up French settlers. Fires raged again last week when aboriginal people from Burnt Church blocked the highway that runs through New Brunswick and built a huge bonfire beside it - the latest twist in a simmering, sometimes violent dispute over lobster fishing.

The first fire at Burnt Church flared in 1758, when British troops set fire to an Acadian church while rounding up French settlers. Fires raged again last week when aboriginal people from Burnt Church blocked the highway that runs through New Brunswick and built a huge bonfire beside it - the latest twist in a simmering, sometimes violent dispute over lobster fishing.

"There's going to be more trouble," said James Ward, speaking for the Esgenoopetitj First Nation, who live on Burnt Church reserve. "The federal [fisheries officials] are provoking confrontation."

The last big blaze here was last autumn, when mobs of white lobster fisherman torched 4,000 native lobster traps and a native prayer site.

But this fight began eight years ago, with one Mi'kmaq man and a bucket of eels. Donald Marshall was caught eel fishing in Pomquet Harbour, Nova Scotia, in 1993, and convicted of violating fishing regulations. Mr Marshall knew about Canada's justice system - he had spent 11 years in a federal jail for a murder he did not commit. His supporters argued that racism played a big role in his conviction on flimsy evidence; he was completely cleared and released in 1982.

And he fought his fishing conviction, taking it to the Supreme Court. Mr Marshall argued that, as a Mi'kmaq, he was not subject to federal fishing regulations. The court agreed, ruling that in a 1760 treatyMi'kmaqs were given the right to harvest eel, lobster and other fish to feed themselves and trade for "necessaries" defined as "food, clothing, and housing, supplemented by a few amenities". Today that translates to enough for a "moderate livelihood", the court said, about C$30,000 (£13,600) a year. Natives hailed the ruling, and Mi'kmaqs at Burnt Church and other east coast reserves began to set lobster traps (before, they were largely left out of the highly regulated fishery because most could not afford the $250,000 licence).

White locals, afraid that off-season fishing would deplete stocks, responded by vandalising the Mi'kmaq traps. Relations between the native and non-native communities deteriorated. The torching of the prayer site caused outrage among natives across Canada.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans subsequently reached agreements with most of the East Coast native bands on the amount and timing of their fishing - but Burnt Church remains unresolved. Some band members want to set 5,000 traps; Ottawa says that threatens lobster stocks and it wants only 40.

Ottawa has offered the reserve C$2.3m to renovate the wharf, replace traps, and buy new boats - if it agrees to regulations. But the band has rejected any proposal for Ottawa to restrict their fishing.

And that has led to the confrontations, as fishery officials haul up what they deem illegal traps, and fishermen try to stop them. In a skirmish on Tuesday, a fisheries agent's face was smashed by a stone thrown from native boats. Native fishermen allege that federal officers have drawn guns; the agents say only pepper spray has been used.

Matthew Coon Come, Grand Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, the umbrella group for Canada's aboriginal people, said last week: "Let us not forget it was federal government mismanagement and non-native fisheries that led to the devastation of the east and west coast fisheries. First Nations peoples are the original conservationists."

He has a point: in the average year, whites set about three million lobster traps in the waters off Atlantic Canada. At the heart of the dispute with the Mi'kmaq are 5,800 traps, less than two-tenths of 1 per cent of the legal white total. The fisheries department has not gone after illegal white fishing since the early Eighties, when fishermen mobbed two patrol boats, drove them ashore and torched them.

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