The Burnt Church Crisis was a conflict in New Brunswick, Canada, from 1999-2002, between the Mi’kmaq community of Burnt Church and the non-Native residents of New Brunswick. The underlying cause of the dispute between the Mi’kmaq people and the non-Natives was the disagreement of fishing rights in the Miramichi Bay. The Mi’kmaq community claimed that they had the right to catch fish and lobster out of season, as per their Treaty rights, whereas the non-Native fisheries claimed that if this was allowed, lobster stocks (as an important source of income) could be depleted (King, 2008).
The conflict followed the Supreme Court Decision, R. v. Marshall in 1999, when a Mi’kmaq man, Donald Marshall Jr., was convicted on three counts of catching and fishing eels out of season. After taking his appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada, Marshall won the right to fish year-around, and the decision emphasized the Mi’kmaq peoples’ right to establish a moderate livelihood in modern day standards, as per their Treaty rights (CBC Digital Archives, 2012).
Although the Supreme Court decision affirmed Indigenous treaty rights to make a moderate living from fishing, the Mi’kmaq community was threatened with the interference and harassment in their fishery by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans soon after the decision. On October 3rd, 1999, furious non-Natives vandalized and destroyed Mi’kmaq fishing traps, and the Mi’kmaq reacted by destroying white fishing boats and buildings. This resulted in a violent breakout in the region where the Mi’kmaq were threatened and beaten, boats were rammed and capsized by government vessels, and shots were fired on several occasions (King, 2008). In 2000, rising conflict led to a series of standoffs between the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Mi’kmaq, where a number of arrests were made. To settle the ongoing dispute, the Federal Government offered the concession of a $2 million fishing wharf and five new modernized boats to the Mi’kmaq community. However, this offer was rejected, because the Mi’kmaq believed that any compromise made to the government would be a surrender of their treaty fishing rights (Robert, 2005).
In April 2002, the conflict subsided when an Agreement in Principle was signed between the Mi’kmaq community and the Federal Government, which allowed the Mi’kmaq to fish for subsistence purposes while banning them from fishing during the fall, and First Nations bands would be issued fishing licenses like everyone else (Obomsawin, 2002). A Federal report on the crisis was released aiming at preventing more violence. It recommended that charges stemming from one major police-Aboriginal confrontation in August 2001 be dropped, and that the Federal Government should compensate fishermen for their lost traps and boats (Roberts, 2005).
Following the settlement of the dispute, a documentary “Is the Crown at War with us” by Alanis Obomsawin was released documenting the events of the Burnt Church Crisis. It provides a chronicle of the conflict between the Canadian Government and the Mi’kmaq people over traditional fishing rights.
Below is a link to the full documentary “Is the Crown at War with us”.
CBC Digital Archives (2012, February 3). The Battle for Aboriginal Treaty Rights – Aboriginal Rights: Overfishing, Out of Season. CBC News. Retrieved October 15, 2014, from: http://www.cbc.ca/archives/categories/society/native-issues/the-battle-for-aboriginal-treaty-rights/overfishing-out-of-season.html
First Nations Drum Newspaper (2000, December 26). Matthew Coon Responds to the Burnt Church Crisis. First Nations Drum Newspaper. Retrieved October 15, 2014, from: http://www.firstnationsdrum.com/2000/12/matthew-coon-responds-to-the-burnt-church-crisis/
King, S. (2008). Contested Place: Religion and Values in the Dispute, Burnt Church/Esgenoôpetitj, New Brunswick. Library and Archives Canada, 1. Retrieved October 15, 2014, from http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/obj/thesescanada
Obomsawin, A. (Director). (2002). Is the Crown at War with us? [Documentary]. Canada: National Film Board of Canada. https://www.nfb.ca/film/is_the_crown_at_war_with_us
Robert, J. (2005). Aboriginal Political Agitation. Canada in the Making. Retrieved October 15, 2014, from http://www.canadiana.ca/citm/specifique/abagitation