“Is The Crown At War With Us?” provides a remarkable chronicle of the conflict between the Canadian government and the native Mi’gmaq people over traditional fishing rights. Veteran documentarian Alanis Obomsawin highlights the gross inequality of the forces at play as a veritable armada of commercial and governmental craft descends on a little band of small native boats, inflicting mayhem and damage, even threatening lives. Set against a splendid backdrop of land and sea, visually compelling docu, which places the struggle in a familiar larger context of historical and cultural oppression, should coast fest waters before finding a secure berth on public TV or indie cable.
Genie-nominated, National Film Board-produced docu makes a strong case for the argument that the Canadian government, in collusion with large-scale commercial fishing interests, effectively conspired to wage war against Mi’gmaq fishermen. Award-winning producer/writer/helmer Obomsawin (“Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance,” “My Name Is Kahentiioska”) interviews a wide range of articulate and passionately involved participants in the ongoing drama that centered around events in Esgenoopetitj (aka Burnt Church), New Brunswick, on Miramichi Bay in the summer of 2000.
In 1999, the Canadian Supreme Court upheld the treaty protected right of the Mi’gmaq people to fish where they had fished for centuries without licenses or regard to season. The decision initially appeared to begin the stemming of a longstanding deterioration of native rights.
But the landmark legal decision left much discretionary power in the hands of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), and that department sought to impose limits in the name of conservation. However, those limits appeared irreconcilable with the Mi’gmaq’s court-mandated right to fish in order to assure a “moderate livelihood.” Furthermore, the policy granted far more scope to non-native fishing businesses while limiting the Mi’gmaqs to an infinitesimal slice of the pie.
Obomsawin includes spokespeople from the other side. But the by-rote self-congratulatory pronouncements of a Royal Canadian Mounted Police captain and the unctuous rationalizations of a DFO minister ring especially hollow in the face of certain indelible visuals: a shot of a respected Mi’gmaq tribesman being hauled ashore, bloody, bound and beaten, or the sight of a DSO vessel mowing down a little fishing boat and then U-turning to run it over again.
Tech credits far outclass those of the usual DV-shot docu, with striking imagery and music that asserts its own cultural advocacy.