Not to forget Burnt Church good news

The Toronto Star
Tuesday, August 22, 2000

AT BURNT Church, N.B., let's take a moment to observe the calm after the storm.

By all accounts, both representative sides of the lobster-fishery conflict - the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and the aboriginal leadership - appear happy with the outcome of a first meeting between the federal negotiator, James MacKenzie, and Burnt Church officials.

The leadership, with the support of Mi'kmaq fishermen, ordered the barricade blocking a major New Brunswick highway be taken down as a show of good faith. And the government, for the first time, agreed to take a serious look at the fishery management plan developed by the community.

Self-management of the aboriginal commercial fishery has always been the single most important issue at Burnt Church.

You - the public - may not have realized this, since good news is no news for the national media. For two weeks, Canadians were exposed to the violent images of conflict at Burnt Church: federal fishery officers being pelted with fish guts; federal boats ramming Mi'kmaq fishermen on the choppy waters of Miramichi Bay; and Mi'kmaqs being handcuffed on their small vessels and escorted into the local courthouse to face charges.

Last Friday evening I was part of a mini-convoy of vans, trucks and cars heading to Burnt Church to bring food, supplies and most importantly, moral support for the idea Burnt Church is entitled to self-manage its fishery. Upon our arrival, we witnessed the barricades coming down, amid cheers and hugs of community members.

When we all returned to our homes to watch the highlights on the national evening news, I was dismayed to find hardly a mention given to this positive development, after two weeks of Burnt Church leading the news clips. Must blood always be shed before a bad situation can be turned around? Or is it that the media feel required to maintain the image of the Indian person wearing fatigues and standing behind a blockade, to give Canadians the impression that only by force or by bullet will he step down?

It is not media attention we seek, but a justified position and respect for aboriginal peoples in Canadian society. Unfortunately, the blockade has become a tool to use to get this point across. It would appear that it's only when we take affirmative action such as this that we get people's attention, including the government of Canada's.

The government itself has not yet realized that the blockade was not necessary. If it had agreed to look at the Mi'kmaq management plan earlier, much-needed taxpayer dollars wouldn't have got spent on extra enforcement and legal expenses.

To say it again, the issue at Burnt Church has always been self-management of the aboriginal fishery. And at the end of the day, government and Mi'kmaq officials did agree to co-monitor the fishery while details are sorted out.

I'm happy this temporary agreement was reached. But those who find agreements boring and hardly newsworthy may be happy to know the issue is far from over.

It is up to the Canadian government to recognize that what the Burnt Church community is looking for is consistent not only with the Supreme Court of Canada's recent Marshall decision, but also with federal guidelines and policy concerning implementation of the inherent right of self-government.

How long can the government expect to tell the Canadian public that it supports self-governing initiatives for aboriginal peoples, and go so far as to develop policy, while at the same time refusing to discuss any of these ideas?

When MacKenzie was first appointed as chief federal negotiator to bring about implementation of the Marshall decision, aboriginal people viewed this development positively - until we realized his stance was not in favour of negotiations, but rather: ``Here is my mandate.'' For aboriginal people, the days of walking into negotiation sessions to be greeted by a pre-mandated offer by senior cabinet ministers are over.

It has become increasingly difficult to maintain public support for aboriginal positions concerning self-government. And with both government and media working - for their own self-serving reasons - against our agenda, it is no wonder our path to self-sufficiency is littered with roadblocks.


Noah Augustine is an aboriginal affairs consultant and a member of New Brunswick's Mi'kmaq community. He can be reached at