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Passamaquoddy drawn into fishing rights battle [archive]

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Passamaquoddy drawn into fishing rights battle

The battle is in Burnt Church, New Brunswick, a remote community about four hours from this border city.

But Saturday, the Mi'kmaq tribe's battle with the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans over its right to fish lobster out of season spilled over to Calais when more than 50 Passamaquoddy marched across the U.S.-Canadian border into St. Stephen to show solidarity with their 'brothers and sisters' in Canada. Burnt Church is located on Miramichi Bay in northeastern New Brunswick.

The Passamaquoddy believe the Mi'kmaq have an aboriginal right to fish unencumbered by federal and provincial rules. Federal fisheries officers in Canada maintain that the lobster fishing season is closed, that Burnt Church native fishermen are fishing illegally.

During the past few days shots have been fired, although no one has been injured. The controversy continues to escalate as non-native fishermen pressure the federal government to do more to stop the Mi'kmaq from fishing. The peaceful demonstration began Saturday morning in Calais, when Passamaquoddy from Pleasant Point, Indian Township and New Brunswick met in the parking lot at Marden's Surplus and Supply Store on Main Street. They carried placards that said 'Canada equals Nazi,' and 'You are on Passamaquoddy Territory.'

Pleasant Point tribal Councilor Clayton Cleaves pointed to the sky where an eagle circled overhead. He said its presence was a good omen. 'It is spiritual. It gives us strength. The eagle sends the message, 'Don't give up,'' he said.

Huge Akagi, chief of the New Brunswick Band of the Passamaquoddy, said that even though the Canadian government had taken a hard-line approach to Burnt Church, he still believed in peaceful resolutions. 'I hope people will appreciate what is going on here today. This is a peaceful march, and the idea is to let people know that we are not happy,' he said.

The group then walked along Main Street and across the Ferry Point Bridge. Ordinarily, people crossing the border stop at Canada Customs, but Saturday, the tribal members marched past the border guards, who stood by impassively, and into St. Stephen. They continued their march to St. Stephen University on Main Street.

Standing beneath the statute that honors the men and women who fought in the Korean War, the tribal members prayed, drummed and sang.

Former state tribal Rep. Fred Moore said they supported their Mi'kmaq brothers and sisters' right to earn a living from the sea. 'We hope that the Canadian government will learn from native people. We pray they will work with us, so together we will be able to protect the resource for future generations,' he said.

Moore, aligning himself with the Mi'kmaq, said, 'Take us to jail for fishing, and when we get out, we are going back fishing,' he said. 'We cannot ask for permission to go fishing any more then you can ask the osprey or the eagle to ask permission to catch a fish. When you can convince them that they need your permission then you might be able to convince us. We got our rights from the creator,' he said. He then urged the Burnt Church natives to continue to fish.

Citing similar restrictions imposed on them by the state of Maine and the U.S. government over their right to fish lobster and groundfish and hunt porpoise, the Passamaquoddy believe the respective governments have no right to challenge their sovereignty over these issues. Over the past few years, the Passamaquoddy have fought the fisheries issue in the courts and lost. They have also battled it on the ocean where they believe they have won, because they continue to fish and hunt.

Denise Altvater, who lives at Pleasant Point, said the right to fish in their native waters was a vital issue to native people on both sides of the international border. If they were ever to be self-sufficient, she said, they must have access to natural resources. Altvater said hunting and fishing were critical to the survival of native people. She recalled that her mother, Mary Yarmal, used to paddle the canoe while her father hunted porpoise.

'If it wasn't for fish and the porpoise we would have starved to death when I was a young child. Today, it isn't just about sustenance; it's about survival. Here in Washington County, there are no jobs, and there are even fewer jobs if you are a native person,' she said.

Tribal members also said they were angered by the racial profiling they believe tribal members have been subjected to by Canadian Customs officers. Tribal officials said that under the 1794 Jay Treaty, the Passamaquoddy, Mi'kmaq and Maliseets are free to cross into Canada and back unencumbered by federal customs laws.

Pleasant Point Lt. Gov. Edward Bassett charged Saturday that there had been several instances when Passamaquoddy on their way to Burnt Church were refused entry. He said that at other times, tribal members were questioned and harassed before they were granted entry.

Tribal Rep. Donald Soctomah said he believed it was important that the Canadian government honor the treaties that were signed in the past. 'We have the right to cross and recross this border like our ancestors did,' he said.

Canada Customs in St. Stephen on Saturday referred all questions about possible racial profiling to their agency's media spokeswoman in Saint John, New Brunswick. She did not return a telephone call over the weekend.

After the Passamaquoddy crossed back into the United States without stopping at U.S. Customs, the group seemed buoyant and satisfied that their protest had gone so well. But the peaceful protest turned negative when they returned to the Marden's parking lot, and Bassett found that someone had torn the hand-made signs off his vehicle, ripped them in two and poured coffee over them. The word 'F*kers' had been written on the door of his truck with a felt pen.

Bassett said the act did not surprise him.

--written by Diana Graettinger

Additional Reading

 Indian Tribes
 Passamaquoddy Tribe
 Glooskap Legends
 Indian Tribes in Maine

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