Call for independent public inquiry into DFO and RCMP Violence at Burnt Church

SHUNPIKING, Atlantic Canada Today
July, 2002, Volume 7, Number 42

A team of human rights observers, who have been on location in the community of Esgenoopetitj (Burnt Church) during each fishing season over the past two years, is calling for a public inquiry into the RCMP and DFO's pattern of violence against First Nations people.

According to Margaret Tusz-King, spokesperson for the Aboriginal Rights Coalition -- Atlantic (ARC-A) Observer Project, "documented evidence and observer experience indicate that the RCMP have participated in violence against both First Nations people and human rights observers in Esgenoopetitj."

"Our observations and experiences in the community of Esgenoopetitj over the past two years lead us to believe that the RCMP cannot objectively judge the evidence against DFO alleged perpetrators and that the RCMP cannot properly investigate their own complicity in the alleged injustices," advises Tusz-King.

"The RCMP's recent refusal to lay charges against DFO personnel who perpetrated violent acts against First Nations people gives the appearance that the RCMP condones this violence. As well, the RCMP's aggressive activities against a human rights observer and her evidence also raise serious questions. An independent public inquiry into this is necessary."

In late March, the RCMP announced that, due to insufficient evidence, charges will not be laid against DFO personnel in connection with a boat ramming incident in Miramichi Bay during the fall fishing season in August 2000. This was the incident that was captured on videotape, and viewed by people across Canada and the world. Condemnation and concern were expressed by many, including church groups and human rights organizations such as the Atlantic Roman Catholic Bishops, United Church of Canada's General Council and the Christian Peacemaker Teams. ARC-A Observers "find it incredible that no charges are resulting from this evidence".

Supressing information

On another occasion, on 12 September 2000, an ARC-A Observer, Tracy Sinclair, was videotaping from an Esgenoopetitj (Burnt Church) boat on the waters off of Burnt Church, well away from any action. When they neared an area where RCMP and DFO personnel were engaging with First Nations fishers, the RCMP tear-gassed and rammed the boat in which she was travelling, knocking her into the water. Sinclair was handcuffed, held and subsequently charged with obstruction.

This charge was later dropped.

Despite the assurance of the arresting officer that she could have it back, the RCMP confiscated the camera and videotape. After many enquiries, the RCMP finally returned the camera on 30 April 2001. It arrived in a plastic bag, in hundreds of bits and pieces. Both camera and videotape had been in good working order, and had been seen, by Sinclair, being viewed by RCMP in the back of a cruiser after her arrest on 12 September 2000.

Four just demands

The ARC-A Observer Project is "calling upon the people and governments of Canada, as well as international human rights organizations, to join their demand for:

o An independent inquiry into the violence against First Nations people of Esgenoopetitj over the past 2.5 years.

o An independent inquiry into the pattern of regular use of violence against First Nations people by police authorities across Canada (for example, Oka; the Dudley George case in Ipperwash, Ontario; Sun Peaks, British Columbia) during disputes of sovereignty and treaty rights.

o Implementation of the Supreme Court Marshall Decision, which recognizes First Nations' rights to a moderate livelihood from the fishery, as well as their rights to manage such a fishery with conservation in mind.

o The government must change its laws and regulations as the Supreme Court has directed, and the RCMP must defend these laws, for justice to be achieved in this issue.

Only then will it be demonstrated to First Nations people that Canadians are people of integrity, who stand for peace and justice, and who will abide by our responsibilities as co-signors of treaties with First Nations people."

The ARC-A Observer Project is a Maritime initiative, sponsored by the Aboriginal Rights Coalition -- Atlantic (an ecumenical organization of both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people) and Tatamagouche Centre (a lay education centre of the United Church of Canada). The goal of the Observer Team is to provide witnesses, and therefore deter violence in troubled areas. The hope is that this presence will open up a space within which peaceful dialogue might occur between non-Aboriginal and First Nations people. Contact: Margaret Tusz-King (506) 536-0597.

ARC -- A Backgrounder

In autumn 1999, the Supreme Court of Canada in its Marshall Decisions declared that Mik'maq, Maliseet and Passamaquoddy First Nations have the right to manage and earn a moderate livelihood from the fisheries. In November 1999, the Aboriginal Rights Coalition - Atlantic (ARC-A) and church representatives heard accounts of lack of security and protection afforded by the RCMP on behalf of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people near and in the Burnt Church (Esgenoopetitj), New Brunswick community, when local fishers protested violently against the native fishery. First Nations people suggested that, if there were non-Aboriginal people witnessing, the RCMP would behave more responsibly toward them.

In time for the Spring 2000 fishery, non-Aboriginal people from the Maritimes were trained as human rights observers, with the hopes that their witness would deter violence, and would open up a space within which peaceful dialogue might occur between non-Aboriginal and First Nations people. Since then, the ARC-A Observers have been present, along with the Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT), along the shores of Burnt Church/Esgenoopetitj during the twice-yearly fishing seasons.


The infamous 29 August 2000 incident, videotaped and broadcast worldwide, was only one among a series of incidents involving both the DFO and the RCMP. With pens, papers and cameras, the Observers documented the following acts, which indicate that ARC-A and DFO are not protecting, and in fact are causing injury, to the First Nations people of Esgenoopetij and those who are human rights observers:

o On 13 August 2000, DFO officers pointed guns in the faces of Mi'kmaq fishers, sprayed them with pepper spray and beat Brian Bartibogue, as they took his ten lobster traps, and arrested him for illegal fishing. An observer was threatened with charges by an RCMP officer when she attempted to photograph the injuries purportedly inflicted by DFO officers.

o By the 29th of August, boat rammings by the DFO were commonplace. Two weeks earlier, a boat ramming incident had resulted in minor injuries to a Listiguj man, one of the Rangers who came, upon invitation, to Esgenoopetitj to help maintain calm and to monitor the Aboriginal fishery.

o On 22 August 2000, two DFO boats rammed a small dory, while the two young Aboriginal occupants, Curtis and Dominic Bonnell, attempted to pull their ten traps from the water before losing them to DFO. When the dory was rammed by a DFO boat, Dominic was struck on the head. He fell to the floor of the dory and was still dazed when two DFO officers jumped on him, held him in a choke hold and handcuffed him. His brother, Curtis, was also knocked down, held in a choke hold and cuffed. All this for ten lobster traps.

A few days later, a family of three, including a three-year-old child was fishing mackerel using a fishing rod, when a DFO cutter began circling them, coming dangerously close to the small dory. When a Listiguj Ranger boat approached, the DFO officers apparently attempted to ram it.

o An ARC-Observer was directly involved in a dramatic incident in early September 2000 when the boat from which she was videotaping was tear-gassed, rammed and all occupants, including a young Aboriginal man, without a lifejacket, who couldn't swim, were thrown into the water. This time, it was the RCMP, however, not the DFO who did the ramming, endangering lives. Tracy Sinclair, the Observer on board, videotaped the incident, up to the point when she was thrown into the water and arrested. The RCMP confiscated the video camera, were seen watching the video footage in the police car once on land, and only returned the camera, months later, in small pieces, along with a partial dub of a tape.

o In fall 2001 the RCMP neglected to protect community members and property when about 50 large fishing boats, operated by non-Aboriginal fishers from the other side of the bay, came into the area, en masse, where DFO had agreed to allow undisturbed Aboriginal fishing. Shots were fired, Aboriginal lobster traps were destroyed, and community members were threatened and terrorized, but the RCMP did not intervene.

o The next day, a number of boats operated by fishers from Big Cove First Nation came into the waters off Esgenoopetitj as a show of support. There was no violence, nor threats of violence instigated by people on the Big Cove boats. Nevertheless, RCMP officers intercepted the boats without hesitation.


There is a regular and systematic pattern of violence against First Nations people in Canada, as evidenced by experience in Burnt Church over the past two and one-half years.

The RCMP recent refusal to lay charges against DFO personnel who perpetrated violent acts against First Nations people and destruction of their property, gives the appearance that the RCMP condones this violence.

The RCMP has participated in violence against First Nations people as well as against a human rights observer.

We, therefore, believe that the RCMP cannot be objective in either judging the sufficiency of evidence again DFO alleged perpetrators or in investigating its own complicity in the alleged injustices.

Endnote by Shunpiking

The average income for an aboriginal male from Esgenoopetitj is 42 per cent lower than the average for the country.

In 2001 Burnt Church was placed under third party trusteeship by the Department of Indian Affairs

Burnt Church First Nations, the South West Nova Fishermens' Rights Association and this magazine have called for an independent inquiry into the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

The ARC-A Observer Project is sponsored by the Aboriginal Rights Coalition-Atlantic and the Tatamagouche Centre. For information, contact [506] 536-0597

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