New Brunswick Natives challenge limitations on salmon rights

By Chris Morris
Fredericton, New Brunswick (AP)

A First Nations community in New Brunswick is challenging limitations on Aboriginal fishing rights in the Miramichi River, one of the most popular salmon angling rivers in North America.

Gina Brooks of the St. Mary’s Reserve in Fredericton said during October members of the community will continue to jig for salmon in the river for a food fishery despite being subjected to what she described as racist insults and rock throwing by Miramichi property owners.

Brooks said several members of the reserve were called “teepee sitters” and had to dodge rocks when they recently took several large, wild Atlantic salmon at a sports lodge where several U.S. anglers were fishing. “The reality is we have a right and they have to make adjustments for that right,” Brooks said in an interview.

“We’re the priority, after conservation, not sports fishermen. Nothing else. We are. We understand that. We’re smart enough to know our rights.”

The federal Fisheries Department confirmed that it has seized fish and equipment from a number of Aboriginal people caught fishing without authorization in private pools on the Miramichi.

The incidents, which are still being investigated by the Fisheries Department, occurred during September. No charges have been laid.

Bob Allain, regional director with the Fisheries Department in Moncton, said government officials are hoping the St. Mary’s band council will accept an offer to fish in the northerly reaches of the Miramichi, away from private waters.

But Allain said the First Nations fishermen would have to observe the same rules as others on the river, which would mean fly-fishing for salmon, not illegally jigging for fish with a hook and line.

“They (the St. Mary’s band) have no communal licence to practice food, social and ceremonial fishery on the Miramichi,” Allain said.

The presence of members of the Maliseet band on the Miramichi has angered recreational fishermen as well as disturbing Mi’kmaq bands that traditionally fish the river.

“Discussions are required,” said Chief Noah Augustine of the Metepenagiag Reserve in Miramichi, a Mi’kmaq First Nation.

“They’re necessary and it potentially could explode into a conflict. My number one concern is to avoid unnecessary conflict and the only way to do that is to sit at the table.”

Brooks said ancestral rivers for the Maliseets in the south of New Brunswick are no longer open to fishing because of the decline of the wild Atlantic salmon.

“We have taken the stand that we need salmon,” she said.

“We have so many American sports fishermen going in there taking salmon but we can’t can’t take salmon. The Supreme Court of Canada says that we’re first after conservation.”

Eight members of the St. Mary’s band were caught fishing in an Irving-owned section of the Miramichi in late August by New Brunswick game wardens.

Although their equipment and the fish they had caught were seized, Wade Wilson of the New Brunswick Department of Natural Resources said the provincial game wardens were ordered to give the items back to the natives the next day, without any charges.

It is not clear who ordered the game wardens to return the seized items, although Allain said it was not the federal Fisheries Department. He said he believes “it went beyond the public service level” in the New Brunswick government, but he wouldn’t elaborate.

Once they had their gear back, the aboriginal fishermen continued fishing in private areas of the river, which infuriated recreational fishermen.

“The salmon stocks are down, there’s a huge problem globally with wild salmon and there’s nothing traditional about the way these people are fishing with their SUVs and jig hooks,” said one Miramichi angler, who asked not to be indentified.

“There has to be a line some place.”

Mark Hambrook of the Miramichi Salmon Association, which represents recreational anglers, said not charging individuals who are allegedly caught fishing illegally sends the wrong message.

“When you have a group going out and violating rules that everyone else has to follow, people say, `If they’re not going to be charged, why should we obey those laws?’ “

Just two days after the the incident with provincial game wardens, the New Brunswick government issued a policy directive saying no charges will be laid against aboriginal people who cross the so-called Ganong line – a boundary the separates traditional Maliseet and Mi’kmaq territories.

New Brunswick Attorney General T.J. Burke said there was no relationship between the policy directive concerning the Ganong line and the actions by the aboriginals in the Miramichi.

The river is traditional Mi’kmaq territory while the St. Mary’s Reserve is Maliseet.

Burke said the Ganong line is arbitrary and the Liberal government has promised to eliminate it.

“At this point in time, we have decided not to prosecute on territoriality. . . but we will continue to enforce the laws in relation to unsafe hunting practices, night hunting and matters of conservation,” he said.