The Supreme Court of Canada’s recent decision to deny the Crown’s appeal in the Ahousaht fishing rights case has been hailed by some as a step in the right direction for First Nation resource claims.
Late last month, the Supreme Court of Canada rejected leave for the Crown to appeal a lower court decision that said five Vancouver Island aboriginal bands, including Ahousaht, “have aboriginal rights to fish for any species within certain defined fishing territories and to sell that fish.”
Ahousaht had been represented by Assembly of First Nations chief Shawn Atleo in a dispute that also included the Ehattesaht, the Hesquiaht, the Mowachaht/Muchalaht and Tla-o-qui-aht Indian bands.
“I am pleased with the signal sent by the Supreme Court of Canada in rejecting leave for the Crown’s appeal,” Atleo said. “It is surprising, though, that the case has been sent back to the B.C. Court of Appeal for review. This is an unusual action, but First Nations are confident that the original decision by the B.C. Court of Appeal will stand and First Nation rights will be respected and upheld.”
The Lax Kw’alaams case has focused on pre-contact fishing practices and whether or not they evolved into modern commercial fishing practices.
For Sunshine Coast resident and First Nations fisherman David Quinn, fishing has been both a means of survival and a sovereign right.
Quinn said he has been fishing since the age of 14.
“The government knows they’re only tenants to the land,” he said. “Fisheries is trying to oppose something they don’t have a right to really, trying to tell you that you can’t harvest fish when it’s your livelihood.”
The original decision held Canada responsible for a prima facie (original contact) infringement of aboriginal rights and highlighted a duty to negotiate with them “in respect of the manner in which the [respondents’] aboriginal rights to fish and sell fish can be accommodated and exercised without jeopardizing Canada’s legislative objectives and societal interests in regulating the fishery.”
An exception for geoduck (“gooey duck”) harvesting was made as “that commercial fishery is of relatively recent origin.”
The decision could signal a growing spirit of cooperation between the government and First Nations fisheries.
On the Sunshine Coast, resident Dan Gillis is putting together a fishing company for the Sechelt Indian Band.
Beginning with one prawn boat and one prawn fisher, Gillis shared his hope that cooperation with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) could lead to mutual benefits for government and the Band.
“It’s brand new,” he said. “We’ve been working with DFO on putting this together along with other Bands on other sections of the Coast for the past three or four years. We’re just now getting to the point where we have licences and a quota.”
Gillis said that presently, workers are testing the equipment and making preparations for the harvest, expected to begin in about a month.
Because fisheries played a vital role in the traditional lifestyle and cultures of First Nations people, Gillis said it’s important to restore them.
“It’s a step in the right direction,” he said.