Skip to main content

Aboriginal people from across Canada gathered at the Burnt Church reserve yesterday to celebrate Treaty Day, but many thought it should have been called "broken treaty" day.

The Mi'kmaq reserve in northeastern New Brunswick was the scene of violent conflicts over the summer as aboriginal fishermen defied the federal government and fished lobsters under their own terms and on the basis of treaty rights.

But as native people paid tribute to those treaties, some from as far back as the 18th century, they had little hope of ever seeing modern-day governments accept the original deals signed in Canada's dim and fractious early history. The Mi'kmaq say the treaties define their rights to harvest and sell natural resources from their traditional territories.

"Canada violates and manipulates the treaties constantly," said Burnt Church resident James Ward, leader of a faction of Mi'kmaq warriors.

"If it didn't, we wouldn't have had this fight on the water for the past few months. I think it would have been more appropriate to have labelled this 'broken treaty' or 'broken promise' day."

The federal Fisheries Department, a constant presence on Miramichi Bay since the most recent conflict began in mid-August, was once again in evidence yesterday as a fisheries helicopter flew low over the bay, checking for lobster traps.

The presence of the chopper clearly bothered participants attending the traditional ceremonies. There were people in Burnt Church from throughout the Maritimes as well as from Quebec, Ontario and the Western provinces.

"Government officials knew the community would be celebrating Treaty Day and to send the helicopter just to remind us they're here shows they've learned nothing from this summer," said Ovide Mercredi, former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations and an adviser to current chief Matthew Coon Come.

Several members of Canada's Sikh community were also at Burnt Church yesterday to show their support for the Mi'kmaq people and to criticize fellow Sikh, Herb Dhaliwal, the federal Fisheries Minister.

"He [Dhaliwal]is not following his religion," said Rijinder Singh of Sydney, N.S.

"If he was following the Sikh tradition, he would be equal and just and help people who are oppressed."

Mr. Mercredi said the experience at Burnt Church, especially the sight of native fishermen in small boats risking their lives against powerful police and fisheries vessels, has reignited aboriginal determination to get a better deal from Canada, especially in terms of land and resources.

"Burnt Church has reawakened the resolve of the Indian people to have their treaty rights respected by Canada," said Mr. Mercredi, who has spent about a month at Burnt Church promoting non-violence.

"The treaties provide an avenue for many people to eliminate poverty by having access to natural resources."

Mr. Mercredi said the Assembly of First Nations will organize a major gathering of aboriginal fishermen and chiefs, probably before Christmas. He said the plan is to create a first nations fisheries policy, based on treaty and aboriginal rights.

There is skepticism that a permanent, peaceful solution to the dispute can be found before lobsters return to Miramichi Bay in the spring.

"Nobody feels satisfied that there has been a resolution to this thing," said Mike Belliveau, spokesman for the Maritime Fishermen's Union, which represents commercial, inshore fishermen.

Former Ontario premier Bob Rae has agreed to continue his mediation efforts over the winter.

Interact with The Globe