Media Representations of The Burnt Church Crisis

News coverage of the Burnt Church Crisis exposed deep fissures between Canada’s Indigenous peoples and the mainstream media. In late 1999, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the Mi’kmaq community of New Brunswick was entitled, as per their treaty rights, to hunt and fish without a licence and out of season in pursuit of a modest livelihood. After such ruling, tensions between the Mi’kmaq community and the white fishermen escalated, especially when the white fishermen smashed hundreds of lobster traps that belonged to the Mi’kmaq community (Fleras 2011). Approximately 20 news media articles were examined on the Burnt Church Crisis from the year 1999 and onwards. I found that majority of the news articles that were analyzed were very critical of the actions of the Mi’kmaq Community during the dispute. For this blog, I intend to analyse how the Burnt Church Crisis was presented in the media by reflecting on approximately 9 news articles from news papers such as the National Post and The Globe and Mail from the beginning of the dispute till the end of the dispute. I will then provide a critical analysis on these news papers by looking at the dominant representations of the disputes and the frames used to describe the people that were involved. Finally, I will discuss how media misrepresentations of specific events and of the people involved can affect the actual outcome, in particular, how such outcomes affect Indigenous peoples that protest for their rights and land in Canada.

The media provided extensive coverage of the dispute between the Mi’kmaq community and the white fishermen of New Brunswick. Upon analyzing news articles from the National Post and The Globe and Mail, it was found that majority of them framed the Mi’kmaq community as “violent”, “demanding”, “unreasonable”, “lawless”, and as “demonized hot-blooded” people who offended the Canadian law as criminals. On the contrary, the media framed the members of the dominant society, the white fishermen, as law-abiding citizens and hard working family men that were trying to make a living by selling lobsters. Specifically, an article in The Globe and Mail the author stated that at least the non-natives were trying to keep peace by listening to the Fisheries and Oceans Canada (Kay 2002). Furthermore, the depiction of the Mi’kmaq community as angry, irrational, and confrontational is evident in an article in The Globe and Mail where the author stated that the some Mi’kmaq peoples set fire to two vehicles owned by non-aboriginal people (Ha 1999a). However, ironically enough, it was the white fishermen that initially attacked the Mi’kmaq community after the Supreme Court of Canada ruling. Moreover, majority of the articles also focused on the arrests of the Mi’kmaq peoples with no mention of the number of arrests made of the white fishermen. In an article in the National Post, the author stated that Federal authorities finally intervened in August, 2000, and 16 natives were arrested (National Post 2002). Subsequently, in The Globe and Mail the author stated that two native men were arrested during the melee, and fisheries officials said one officer was hit in the jaw with a brick (Lea 2000). In these news articles, there was no mention about the white fishermen being arrested. Moreover, the author in another article in The Globe and Mail referred the Mi’kmaq peoples as the “native warriors” and “some native bands” (Ha 1999b). After researching through these articles, I found that majority of the news articles only focused on issues relating to the stand-offs between the Mi’kmaq community and white fisher men with an emphasis on the violent parts of the dispute. The Mi’kmaq peoples were framed as violent and disruptive throughout majority of the articles, although it was the police and the white fishermen that were attacking using guns and weapons. The Mi’kmaq attacked back as a defence mechanism to protect their community and their property.

The media did not focus on the broader context of issue, such as the struggle the Mi’kmaq community had to face, both emotionally and politically, to be able to live as per their treaty rights. Specifically, there was no mention about the Mi’kmaq people’s fishing rights pursuant to the Supreme Court Decision, R v. Marshall in 1999 that gave the Mi’kmaq community the right to fish year-around. This decision emphasized the Mi’kmaq peoples’ right to establish a moderate livelihood in modern day standards, as per their Treaty rights. The media failed to present crucial and factual information of the events that may have helped the Mi’kmaq community get what they were initially protesting for

The public version and perceptions of the Burnt Church dispute are shaped by the stories of the media. This public version of the dispute is important precisely because of its limitations and biases, and the ways that these would shape our views of the dispute, were we to rely upon it as our only window into the events in Burnt Church (King 2008). Firstly, the media failed to provide substantial coverage of the overall issue and what the Mi’kmaq community was actually protesting for. Media coverage of the Mi’kmaq peoples’ protest misses the point of the struggle as they failed to focus on the more important issues and concerns regarding the dispute. By contrast, the government position was praised as balanced, just, and reflective of national interests in restoring peace, order, and good government (Fleras 2011). The framing of the Mi’kmaq peoples’ resistance as a law and order issue downplayed the broader context that sparked the struggle. Since the public attention was distracted from the broader context of the issues pertaining to the Mi’kmaq peoples’ rights, it was instead shifted towards irrelevant issues that only prolonged the dispute further. Due to the constant attacks and pressure from the Canadian Government, the Mi’kmaq community had to negotiate and settle for an agreement that was for the most part in the favour of the white fishermen and the Canadian Government. The Mi’kmaq people and their treaty rights were dismissed as a cover up to justify a host of criminal activities against the white fishermen and the Canadian Government.

The overall media representation of The Burnt Church Crisis largely focused on the violent incidents of the dispute, especially on the ongoing disagreement over lobster traps. After researching further, I came to the conclusion that this prolonged and heated dispute was not just about lobsters, but it was about the ongoing differences that the Indigenous people have with the Canadians. The discourses presented throughout these disputes are as such that the Indigenous people always have to protest for their rights and their land; however, in doing so, they are always depicted as violent and disruptive protestors by the mainstream media. The overall thrust of the news media Burnt Church was framed around the theme of criminality, law and order, and conflict instead of a struggle over Indigenous rights (Fleras 2011).

References

Burnt Money. 2002. National Post. (Retrieved from Factiva December 9, 2014.)

CBC Digital Archives. 2012. The Battle for Aboriginal Treaty Rights – Aboriginal Rights: Overfishing, Out of Season. CBC News. (Retrieved October 15, 2014.)

Fleras, Augie. 2011. Disassembling Media Representations 101. In The Media Gaze: Representations of Diversities in Canada. Vancouver: UBC Press.

Ha, Thanh. 1999a. “Violence Escalates in Conflict over Fishery.” The Globe and Mail. (Retrieved from Factiva December 9, 2014.)

Ha, Thanh. 1999b. “Natives Defy Call to Stop Fishing’ Why should we give up Our Treaty Rights?” The Globe and Mail. (Retrieved from Factiva December 12, 2014.)

Kay, Jonathan. 2002. “Welfare Traps Collide in Miramichi Bay. National Post. (Retrieved from Factiva December 9, 2014.)

King, Sarah.2008. Contested Place: Religion and Values in the Dispute, Burnt Church/Esgenoôpetitj, New Brunswick. Library and Archives Canada, 1. (Retrieved October 15, 2014.)

Lea, Michael. 2000. “Dhaliwal Refuses Burnt Church Natives’ Offer to Talk.” The Globe and Mail. (Retrieved from Factiva on December 9, 2014.)

 

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