Quebec whites and Indians square off over salmon stream
A nasty confrontation symbolic of the troubled relations between Canadian whites and Indians has been simmering for months in the eastern Canadian province of Quebec.
The dispute, which has become something of an embarrassment to Quebec Premier Rene Levesque, concerns fishing rights on one of this country's most famous salmon streams -- the Restigouche River.
Tensions along the Restigouche, which forms part of the boundary between Quebec and New Brunswick in an area north of Maine, have run high ever since Quebec authorities confiscated Indian fishing nets in a raid in early June.
Under Canada's federal system, inland fishereis jurisdiction is held by provincial governments, in this case the Province of Quebec. But the 1,600 Micmac Indians of the Restigouche reserve, citing "ancestral rights" to waters traditionally fished by Indians, refused to recognize Quebec's authority over the salmon fishery.
Each year when the salmon come to the Restigouche from the sea to spawn during the summer months, the 150 or so Micmac fishermen set their nets six nights a week, earning about $1,800 apiece for the season.
But this year, in a purpoted conservation measure, the Quebec government acted on June 11, when Quebec provincial police in full riot gear invaded the Micmac reserve. At the same time dozens of provincial game wardens on 35 boats sped across the river from the New Brunswick shore to seize nets from the water and beach.
After a house-to-house search of the village, the police took away about 100 nets, valued at $30,000.During the raid, the police arrested nine Micmacs and roughed up enough Indians to keep cries of police brutality echoing across Canada for weeks.
The complaints reached a peak in mid-July when officials of the National Indian Brotherhood said their preliminary investigation of the incident revealed numerous instances of police misconduct in the raid.
For example, a Restigouche resident, fisherman Randy Morrison, was reported to have testified: "I was trying to get out of the way of a group of policemen. A group of them grabbed, handcuffed, and then beat me with their sticks."
The June 11 raid was followed by another nine days later, whenthe police sealed off the village and fired rubber bullets and tear gas at approaching residents while an armored police boat seized nets from the river.
Elsewhere in the province, police and game wardens raided Indian fishing in rivers owned by wealthy Americans.
The aftermath of the raids has been a spiral of increasing violence in the region. Several hundred whites marched into an Indian reserve on the St. Lawrence River and tore up a native-owned salmon net. Then last month, two Indians were injured by shotgun blasts allegedly fired by provincial police following a car-smashing incident at a bar on the Quebec-New Brunswick border.
Mr. Levesque's reputation has been tarnished by the incidents, particularly by a remark by one of his ministers, who condescendingly characterized Indians as people who make "good guides."
Such remark have done nothing to dispel a widespreed belief that a deep srain of racism toward Indian existed among Quebeckers and other eastern Canadian whites. Among Quebec's 35,000 Indians, there is a fear that the underlying purpose of police raids in Restigouche was to establish Quebec control fo the salmon fishery in case Mr. Levesque's pro-independence party ever attains its goal of establishing Quebec as an independent nation.
Increasing oil exploration in the Canadian north has added urgency to native land claims, and Indians feel their rights may become less secured under the new constitution Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau hopes to install soon.
More and more Indians in Canada would agree with Joe Stacey, president of the Confederation of Indians of Quebec, when he says:
"We are not Canadians. We are Indians, North American Indians who have every moral right to our freedom in a free Indian homeland."