The RCMP’s decision not to lay charges against DFO enforcement officers for their actions in an August 29, 2000 raid off the shores of Esgenoopetitj (Burnt Church) is a bitter pill to swallow for native people struggling to assert their treaty rights under the Canadian constitution. For anyone who saw the video footage taken by Christian Peacemaker and Aboriginal Rights Coalition observers on that early morning of August 29, 2000, it is incomprehensible.
Canadians were shocked by the scene broadcast on national newscasts – a high powered DFO patrol vessel deliberately swamping a small open boat with Mi’kmaq fishermen on board. But there’s more the networks didn’t broadcast. I saw video footage which showed at least two DFO patrol vessels cornering a small dory with two fishermen aboard, while a third went right over the top of the dory, forcing the occupants to jump overboard, and sinking the boat completely. The patrol boat was so firmly lodged on top of the native boat, it had to reverse its engines to get off it.
The video also recorded a DFO officer repeatedly striking a native man in the water until other officers pulled him away and restrained him, allowing the man in the water to escape. There are other testimonies to the early morning raid which bolster this very disturbing visual record. Presumably this is some of the evidence reviewed — and discounted — by the RCMP and the Public Prosecutions office in Fredericton.
I realize there are subtleties about evidence and its collection that often confound the application of justice. But I can’t imagine that the complaint against DFO isn’t valid — that enforcement officers used excessive force against native fishers that day. Certainly by all moral and ethical standards, the unanswered aggression and force used against Esgenoopetitj people that day would be judged unacceptable by any justice-loving Canadian.
In refusing to act on the complaint, the RCMP is continuing its complicity with DFO’s heavy-handed tactics. In a brief to the National Aboriginal Advisory Committee of the federal Justice Department in November 2001, the Community of Esgenoopetitj documented several complaints against the RCMP itself.
The brief alleges the RCMP was equally engaged with DFO against native fishermen. During the 2000 fall fishery, RCMP officers “were assembled in full combat gear, including high calibre automatic assault rifles.” On one occasion, according to the brief, an RCMP patrol boat rammed and sank a small boat carrying human rights observers who were recording DFO actions against native fishermen. The occupants were arrested, taken to the detention centre, and the video and equipment confiscated. One year later the video, with sections erased, was returned to the observer in a box of disassembled parts.
The brief describes another incident involving a native fisherman taken into RCMP custody after an altercation on the water with DFO. The man, a severe diabetic, had suffered injuries at the hand of DFO and required medical treatment. Such treatment was denied by the RCMP, so the man used the phone call he was allowed for acquiring legal counsel to call ‘911 ’ instead. An ambulance responded and got him to the hospital for treatment. Meanwhile, RCMP denied human rights observers permission to record the man’s injuries and poor health condition, threatening them with arrest if they did so. The brief also cites lack of RCMP intervention in the various incursions into Esgenoopetitj fishing grounds by white fishermen, when gear was destroyed and shots fired, despite being on the water at the time.
The brief concludes that “the RCMP refuses to be responsive to upholding and/or defending Community inherent and treaty fishing rights…against violence and the threat of violence from any source” as required under Section 35 of the Canadian constitution. Understandably, the Community of Esgenoopetitj feels that justice is not blind.
In September 2000, just after the infamous August 29 raid,
I wrote, “Let’s be frank. DFO can get away with this because these people are natives. It’s an unpopular suggestion to make, but in this situation we must with all honesty and humiliation uncover those racist tendencies that cloud our perception of justice and to whom it is afforded.” Nothing has changed.
It is a sad reality that Constitutionally-enshrined rights are not automatically defended by our federal law enforcement agency. Rights have to be exercised and defended to keep them from being usurped. Unfortunately, this takes incredible sacrifice, copious financial resources and legal expertise. Clearly the Community of Esgenoopetitj has demonstrated the sacrifice. Their boats and traps are gone and their people browbeaten, weary and impoverished. To rely on the courts to assert – yet again -their treaty and constitutional rights and to curb the power of federal agencies that refuse to acknowledge those rights, is probably far beyond their means.
It shouldn’t be up to minorities to defend our Constitution. This is the responsibility of the majority. Canadians should demand that the evidence backing the complaint against DFO be opened for public scrutiny. If the RCMP succeeds in keeping this matter out of court, then a public inquiry should be launched, just as it was when the RCMP tramped on the constitutional rights of students at the APEC demonstrations in Vancouver. On the table should be both DFO and RCMP behaviour. Nothing less than this should be afforded the sustained harassment of Burnt Church natives by federal agencies.
Janice Harvey is a freelance writer. She can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.