B.C. First Nations get clarity on fishing rights from top court

Nations call federal government to settle fishing rights ‘within the true meaning of reconciliation’

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.”