By Frank Jr Molley
Burnt Church First Nation, New Brunswick, Canada
It was just another day at the band office on Tuesday when Burnt Church First Nation councillor Mr. Curtis Bartibogue first noticed the files on his desk.
“It’s that time of the year when Aboriginal Affairs Funding Agreements come in, I looked at them briefly and set them aside for thursday’s meeting,” he said during a telephone interview.
It was that same day that he noticed a similar agreement being discussed online which caused him some concern, so he went back to take a closer look at the agreement. Aboriginal Funding agreements are issued across Canada prior to each fiscal year, a process that has the usual outlines on funding dollars. Particulars involving Burnt Church First Nation include; Education (Elementary, Secondary, Post Secondary), Economic Development, Indian Government Support, Land and Trust Services, Community Infrastructure, Housing, Social Support Services, Social Assistance, and Headstart & Day Camp.
“Certain terminology contained in the prior funding agreements years before were no longer there,” he said as he compared last year’s agreement to this years. “For example, Section 16 would normally have a non-derogation clause, but that was omitted. These normally state that signing this agreement does not derogate from any aboriginal or treaty right, this was replaced and I thought that was strange,” he stated. “What I also found was that it said by signing onto this funding agreement our band would agree to the federal guidelines on social programs, which meant we would have to abide by the provincial social rates,” Bartibogue said.
Last year Ottawa planned to impose changes to welfare programs on First Nation communities that would harmonize rates throughout Atlantic Canada with Provincial rates. But fell short of implementation due to a Federal Court Judge’s decision that effectively placed an injunction until heard in court. A decision many First Nation leaders of the Maritimes were pleased with. Despite the existing injunction Chief and Council of Burnt Church were concerned how this current agreement would affect the case currently before the courts. Calls were made to the Regional Office requesting a meeting with the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs to discuss the matter.
“We met with the Minister and his staff last night [Wednesday] in Miramichi,” he said. The Minister was in the province conducting Federal announcements in both Eel Ground and Buctouche First Nation respectively. “We asked Minister Valcourt why he didn’t recognize the injunction and he assured us the reason why they are putting the clause into the agreement is just in case the court votes in favour of the government,” Bartibogue said during the interview conducted with Wabanaki Press on Thursday evening.
“We were told that there was nothing wrong with what they were doing, it was just in case they win that they would be able to enforce those changes,” Bartibogue said. Bartibogue believes that if Burnt Church First Nation signs the funding agreement, prior to the courts decision on social assistance reform in the Atlantic that is expected in June 2013, it may have major implications. “So we asked if we did not sign the agreement would we still be able to get the essential funding outside of social assistance. The Regional Director, Ian Gray, told us we would not get it because any new agreement must go through a process with the Treasury Board’s approval. He also said that without signing they cannot release any funding to the community for April 1, 2013,” Bartibogue said.
Burnt Church First Nation, also known as Esgenoopetitj, is a Mi’gmaq community comprised of approximately 1,800 band members, with an 80 per cent unemployment rate. In February of 2010, CBC news reported that seven of the ten poorest postal codes in Canada were First Nation communities and all of them were within the province of New Brunswick. Burnt Church First Nation was reported to be the poorest postal code in the country, poorer than Vancouver’s Downtown East Side, according to median income data by Statistics Canada.
“It’s blackmail and it’s the most illegal thing ever done,” says Bartibogue. “We told the Minister it’s like you’re putting a gun to our head and telling us to sign. He just said if we sign there will be no funding problems,” said Bartibogue. The meeting took place at Rodds Inn in Miramichi, NB on Wednesday. Present at the meeting was the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs, Bernard Valcourt and his staff, including AANDC Regional Director General Ian Gray, Miramichi MP Tilly O’Neill Gordon, along with Chief Alvery Paul and eight of twelve Council members from Burnt Church First Nation.
Chief and Council of the Mi’gmaq community were told they have until noon Friday, March 15, 2013 local time to sign the agreement. Coupled with pressing economic issues and an annual dependency of Federal Funding averaging $16 million dollars, the Chief and Council have decided not to sign the agreement.
“The outcome of our meeting today [Thursday] was that we can’t sign. We asked the public and informed them of the situation and they stand behind us not to sign. To accept the social reform, the omitting clauses of the treaties and the case before the courts, is something we can’t do to our community,” says Councillor Curtis Bartibogue.
For the poorest postal code in Canada one would have to believe this to be an area of great concern given the Country’s approach to economic stability and strong Canadian values involving First Nation, Inuit and Metis communities across the land. However, despite the sudden turn of events for the Mi’gmaq of Burnt Church First Nation, Canada’s Aboriginal Affairs office announced yesterday the designing and construction of a new school in Eel Ground First Nation. A similar announcement was later made regarding funding for a new water treatment facility at Buctouche First Nation, both communities are located in New Brunswick and both are also Mi’gmaq nations. Two out of three announcements that prove positive results for the future of these ancient peoples is cause for applause indeed. The question remains, how many other Mi’gmaq and Maliseet communities were subjected to signing these kinds of funding arrangements? Wabanaki Press will continue to follow this story as it develops.
“The Harper Government remains focused on four priorities, as outlined by the Prime Minister, that Canadians care most about: their families, the safety of our streets and communities, their pride in being a citizen of this country, and their personal financial security.” Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada website, March 14, 2013, News Release and Statements. Ref. #2-3768
With files from CBC, Windspeaker and Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada.