The Christian presence at Burnt Church

When Christian ministers talk about Jesus and fishermen, one often thinks of the Sea of Galilee.

Not so in Burnt Church these days, where Bishop Gordon Beardy of the Diocese of Keetwatin recently visited the Mi’kmaq people embroiled in conflict with the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

Bishop Beardy visited Esgenoopetitj (Burnt Church) towards the end of September. According to David Ashdown, Archdeacon of Keewatin, the bishop went to the First Nation “to minister by his presence and hearing their story, to pray with them, and to offer his assistance in bringing about justice and an equitable solution.”

“Bishop Beardy’s presence played quite a significant role for us,” said Meg Mahaa, an Esgenoopetitj community leader who co-ordinated the visit. “Because he was from the church and from a First Nation he inspired a lot of trust.”

Bishop Beardy was among several Christian leaders and clergy to spend time at Burnt Church over the past Spring and Fall fishing seasons, which saw tensions erupt between Native and non-native fishers and the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO).

Bill Phipps and Stan McKay, both former moderators of the United Church of Canada have visited. Other clergy are among ecumenical observer teams currently at the First Nation, made up of volunteers with the Aboriginal Rights Coalition (ARC), a national church network, and Christian Peacemaker Team.

According to Chris Buehler, Minister of Peace, Justice, and Social Concern with the Mennonite Conference of Eastern Canada, the main task of observers at Burnt Church is to wait for court dates to be set for those charged with interference with police. Among those awaiting a court date is Fr. Bob Holmes, a Roman Catholic priest and CPT observer.

ARC observer Rev. Russell Daye, a United Church minister, added that observers are staying on because although lobster season is over, salmon season has begun. Some fear conflicts at the Tabisan Taq river at Burnt Church.

Up until October 7th, when the last traps were pulled out by Mi?kmaq fishers, observers? main task was to record activity on Miramachi Bay.

The presence of Bishop Beardy’s and other clergy at Burnt Church has caused anxiety for some non-Native Christians, who fear that the churches’ presence and support may alienate non-Native people also involved in the conflict.

The General Synod’s Eco-Justice committee, asked by the Anglican Council of Indigenous Peoples for financial assistance to send Bishop Beardy to Burnt Church, declined after what staff person Maylanne Maybee called a “lengthy and emotionally charged” discussion.

The Anglican discomfort was echoed by local United Church of Canada members near Burnt Church, who, according to CPT observers Joel Klassen and Lena Siegers, expressed pain that the church had released a statement in support of the First Nation.

But Christian clergy who favour witnessing at Burnt Church cite theological and democratic reasons for their involvement.

In a letter written to Robert Nault, the Minister of Indian Affairs, on behalf of the Diocese of Keewatin’s executive council, following Bishop Beardy’s trip, Archdeacon Ashdown stated that “[t]he church does not take sides. But in its quest for justice it does have the responsibility to stand with the poor and rejected and to make their voice heard when the powerful attempt to silence them.”

Some observers have described their role as “truth-telling.”

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