A group of armed dissident Micmac fishermen has set up barricades near the Miramachi River in New Brunswick to protect their fishing rights claim. The dissidents oppose Eel Ground Micmac leader Roger Augustine’s fish conservation accord with Canada’s federal government.
The timing of the showdown was near-perfect. Five years ago, Canadian soldiers and Mohawk warriors stood eyeball-to-eyeball in the pines near the Kanesatake Indian reserve near Oka, Que., in a standoff that deepened into a national crisis. Last week, self-proclaimed native warriors again massed behind barricades–this time near the tiny settlement of Sunny Corner, N.B., along the salmon-rich Miramichi River, where the rhetoric of confrontation seemed as heated as ever. “I’m a warrior,” Francis Simon, 40, a gunsmith and leading militant from the Micmac Indian reserve at Big Cove, N.B., told Maclean’s. “That means you have to be ready to die.” Last week, at least, his commitment went untested. A tentative pact in the fishery dispute momentarily defused the tension. But the barricades remained, providing ample evidence of the ease with which native groups across the country are capable of applying pressure on the rest of Canadian society.
In truth, the New Brunswick dispute is more about internal native politics than about fishing rights. At the root of the standoff: bad blood between Roger Augustine, for 16 years chief of the Eel Ground Micmac band, and a small group of band members who have long been unhappy with his leadership. In March, the dissidents occupied the band council’s offices in protest against Augustine’s leadership, and last month they took over 10 half-finished tourism chalets owned by the band.
The dispute entered a new phase when they decided to ignore a conservation deal that Augustine signed last year with Ottawa. The pact prohibits natives from using gill nets–which kill everything they catch–along a stretch of the Miramichi about 15 km from the reserve. In return, the natives received $450,000 in federal job-creation funds. But the protesters argued that treaty law gives natives the right to fish wherever and whenever they want. They dropped gill nets near the disputed area–known locally as Big Hole Tract. Then, federal fisheries agents and RCMP officers staged midnight raids, arresting 10 band members for assault and obstruction.
At the invitation of the protesters, between 50 and 100 self-appointed warriors from New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Maine came to Sunny Corner in early July to help them erect a blockade on the road into Big Hole Tract. Fisheries officers responded to the protesters’ gill nets by erecting their own barrier net which prevented salmon from swimming upstream to the native gill nets. The tension peaked on July 7, when 200 members of the Eel Ground band angrily marched to the road blockade and asked the outsiders to leave. The group manning the barricade refused–saying that they intended to protect the rights of natives to fish whether the majority of band members wanted them there or not. “They were telling us they knew what was right for us even if we did not,” fumed Lloyd Ginnish, a native fisheries officer who joined in the march.
The warring native factions reached a truce during a meeting last week involving the warriors, Augustine and officials from the Union of New Brunswick Indians. They agreed among themselves to demand that the fisheries department remove its barrier net and drop the obstruction and assault charges against band members. In return, the warriors offered to take down their barricades and the protesting band members promised to abandon all of their gill nets except for a small one used to catch enough fish for food.
Although the fisheries department was still studying the offer at week’s end, the warriors were already trumpeting it as a victory for fishing and future generations. “The winners here are the children and the fish,” declared protester Diane Ward. She added that natives “will make our own management plans on reserves and there will be co-operation.” But fisheries officials had many questions about the pact. For example, said Bob Allain, the department’s area manager for eastern New Brunswick, “we want to know what happens to the fish once the barrier net is raised.”
As the events unfolded along the Miramichi last week, many Canadian natives were also contemplating the lessons of a far more violent dispute. Five years ago, Quebec Mohawks erected a barricade outside the town of Oka to protest expansion of a golf course onto land that once served as a native cemetery. When provincial police unsuccessfully raided the blockade on July 11, 1990, one officer was shot to death, igniting a 78-day standoff which ended only when 400 soldiers finally hemmed in the small band of remaining Mohawk warriors. The native land claim at the centre of the dispute remains unresolved.
More recently, blockades have emerged as a potent native weapon. In British Columbia, activists have thrown up barricades at ranches, ski resorts, logging areas and other private property to gain publicity and government attention for everything from land-use grievances to fishing rights.
As the showdown in Sunny Corner indicated, the spirit of Oka lives at the other end of the country, too. And a victory on the Miramichi–even though the dispute primarily pits natives against natives–could prompt more warriors to return to the barricades.