Canadian Fisheries and Oceans Minister Robert Thibault said in mid-May that he was optimistic about future relations between the federal government and the Burnt Church Mi’kmaq fishermen in New Brunswick. But by late in the month there wasn’t a recognized band council for him to negotiate with.

On May 10, the federal Department of Indian and Northern Affairs declared the August 2001 band council election invalid because of “voting irregularities,” told the council members to resign, and called for an election within 30 days of the announcement.

The federal action was in response to complaints by tribal members, according to Burnt Church spokesman Lloyd Augustine. “An appeal was launched by a few members of the community, and one of the grounds was corruption, vote buying,” he said.

Gkisedtanamoogk, director of the Wabanaki Cultural Center at Burnt Church, added, “It’s taken [the federal government] that long, from September to May, to respond to the community’s call for the re-election.”

Chief Wilbur Dedam has denied all the allegations of corruption and vote buying.

Four days before the election was invalidated, Thibault had met with Chief Dedam and the band council, along with Fisheries and Oceans officers, representatives of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and non-Native fishermen. Described as a cross-cultural training session, the meeting at Burnt Church was the basis for Thibault’s optimism.

Thibault also announced a change in the department’s posture toward some agreements with Native bands. “The target for signing fisheries agreements with First Nations will continue to be March 31, 2004. However, the department will now have until March 31, 2006 to deliver on commitments for commercial access, training and capacity-building initiatives,” Thibault said. “This will allow First Nations to build their capacity more gradually and, through training, increase their ability to fish their access safely and successfully. It also gives the department more time to acquire commercial access and deliver on its commitments in a cost-effective manner.”