Five Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations from Vancouver Island are ready to negotiate for fishing rights, following another legal victory—this time in BC Supreme Court. It’s a victory that will have far-reaching implications in British Columbia, says the First Nations Fisheries Council of B.C.
The five nations—Ahousaht, Ehattesaht/ Chinehkint, Hesquiaht, Mowachaht/ Muchalaht and Tla-o-qui-aht—have been fighting the federal government for Aboriginal fishing rights since 2006. In this last court appearance, labeled the “justification trial”, the federal government failed to justify its infringement of these five nations’ Aboriginal right to catch and sell fish from their territories.
In a 400-page judgment, the judge called for changes to government policies, and gave the federal government one year to make those changes.
Hugh Braker, vice-president of the First Nations Fisheries Council of British Columbia and a member of the Tseshaht First Nation on Vancouver Island, said the decision will affect all First Nations in B.C. “This is a win for all First Nations in B.C.,” he said.
“There are other First Nations in B.C. that are advocating for their fishing rights.”
The April 19 Supreme Court decision will effectively put Indigenous fishing rights above those of sportfishing. Conservation will remain the No. 1 priority, he added.
In particular, the judge found existing DFO salmon allocation framework cannot be justified and must be changed. In the past, DFO gave priority to recreational fishermen for Chinook (spring) and Coho salmon. The judge also found the five First Nations have the right to fish for halibut and other ground fish and sell their catch, which was previously not allowed.
“DFO is going to have to rethink and redo their salmon allocation framework they have for the Somass River,” as well as the Fraser River and other salmon fisheries, Braker said.
Federal Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard, Dominic LeBlanc, said the government has already been taking steps “in the spirit of reconciliation” with the five First Nations. “As an immediate step, I have directed Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) to review the Pacific Salmon Allocation Policy,” LeBlanc said in a statement. “We will work in collaboration with Indigenous groups and all stakeholders to renew and co-develop this policy.”
LeBlanc called the path to a fisheries agreement long, and acknowledged it wouldn’t be easy, “but we will arrive at a better place for all.”
The justification trial began on March 9, 2015. Canada took 108 days to present its case through 25 witnesses, according to a Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council press release. The Nuu-chah-nulth case was presented in 32 days through 11 witnesses.
The case has been ongoing since 2006. The BC Supreme Court in 2009 recognized the Nuu-chah-nulth nations’ right to catch and sell fish, and in May 2011 the BC Court of Appeal upheld the Supreme Court decision.
“We have been winning court cases against the federal government since 2006,” Ehatteshaht Chief Councillor Rose-Ann Michael said in a statement.
“We met with Minister LeBlanc a few weeks ago and he asked us what the government could do to prove they were different than the Harper government,” Michael added. “We told him then and we’re telling him again, stop dragging your feet and get on with implementing our fishing plans.”
While salmon allocation and the right to catch and sell halibut and other ground fish were highlights, Braker said they only touch the surface of the report. He said he expects other changes will come to light.
“It is a long fight for people,” said Braker. “I keep telling taxpayers they should be questioning the government in this. The government has spent literally tens of millions of dollars fighting this in court and they have not won a single part of the cases yet.”
Courtenay-Alberni MP Gord Johns, who flew from Ottawa to attend the announcement in Vancouver on Thursday, said he’s pleased with the outcome. “It’s so important they protect their way of life and the way of life they inherited from their predecessors and their ancestors,” he said of the five Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations. “Nuu-chah-nulth people are saltwater people. It’s our opportunity to get them back on the water,” he said.
Johns, an Opposition MP, stood in the House of Commons earlier this year imploring the federal Liberals to settle the fishing rights matter in the spirit of reconciliation. He said the federal government had already spent $19 million in legal costs.
“The Nuu-chah-nulth have been more than patient,” Johns said in a statement released April 19. “The nations have developed fishing plans that uphold conservation and provide for reasonable allocations and well-managed fisheries. All our communities on the west coast of Vancouver Island support Nuu-chah-nulth getting a fair share of the fishing opportunities in their territories.
“It is just good business for the economic well-being of our coastal communities and First Nations.”