A T’aaq-wiihak fisher with his grandson lands Chinook salmon in Tofino. Photo by Melody Charlie.

Five Vancouver Island First Nations call out Canada for ‘discriminatory’ food fish practices

West Coast nations say government ignoring court-won right to chinook and coho

Five western Vancouver Island First Nations have called on the federal government to take “meaningful action” and “redirect” surplus allocation of chinook salmon to their communities.

The First Nations are irked by the “disregard” of the federal government they say continues to prioritize tourists and recreational fishers over their food fish needs.

Ahousaht, Hesquiaht, Tla-o-qui-aht, Ehattesaht and Mowachaht/Muchalaht First Nations, in a joint statement, have urged the government to “not take the usual path and simply move the fish around” between non-indigenous sectors.

“People with only the privilege to fish, such as the sports fishermen and Area G trollers, seem to have more rights to the fish than our Five Nations do,” said Wickaninnish (Clifford Atleo), lead negotiator for the Ahousaht First Nation.

The First Nations called government practices “discriminatory,” adding Canada is refusing to acknowledge the impact they have on their Nations, culture, and well-being of their communities, especially in this time of the pandemic.

“We need the income and our members want to fish. Our Nations have an aboriginal right to fish commercially,” the statement says.

On April 19, 2018 – after years-long legal battle between the five nations and the federal government– the B.C. Supreme court ruled in favour of aboriginal fishing rights above those of sportfishing.

In a 400-page judgment, the judge called for changes to government policies, and gave the federal government one year to make those changes. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) was also asked to reconsider the priority they gave recreational fishermen for chinook and coho salmon.

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

But First Nations have said that despite winning the right to fish, victory seems “hollow” due to the “disregard and a refusal to move by the federal government. “

The First Nations have accused DFO of again refusing to provide more fish to them, despite the low numbers of recreational and commercial fishers on the waters due to COVID-19.

“Given less tourism and conservation measures, there will be less catch by the recreational sector. This made an easy opportunity for DFO to give more fish to our Nations so that we could exercise our right and help support our remote communities, which are in economic crisis,” said the First Nations.

They also said that DFO has been unwilling to engage with them about this issue, and if the call to make meaningful changes goes “unheeded”, the Nations will defend their rights.

“We cannot allow another season without meaningful access, with lost revenue for our fishermen, lost resources for our communities, and the continuation of harmful patterns that move us away, rather than toward, the reconciliation that the Prime Minister and ministers claim they support.”

More than 5,000 members of these First Nations have received as little as 1.5 food fish per member for the whole year, despite the Supreme Court directive to DFO to allow a ‘generous approach’ for first nations to harvest food fish.

“Each year, the amount of fish is so small that we have to make very difficult decisions about how to distribute fishing opportunities so that at least some members can cover expenses and make a go of it. But this damages our communities and it strikes at the core of our identity as fishing people,” read the statement.

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