Aboriginal Commercial Fishers

There’s nothing like the annual Owen Sound Salmon Spectacular, in its present format at least, to highlight the polarized tribal nature of race relations in Owen Sound-Grey-Bruce. The Caledonia situation, with its at times irresponsible behaviour on both sides has no doubt done great harm to relations between the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities in that area and the country generally. No such angry, violent and otherwise unpleasant confrontations happened in Owen Sound during the recent Salmon Spectacular, attended, as this newspaper reported, by “thousands” of sports fishers and their families from here and far away. 

Most of the credit for that at least outwardly peaceful atmosphere belongs to the people who weren’t there, who could have been if they so chose, casting their commercial fishing nets deep into Owen Sound waters while the derby was underway. But for years the Saugeen Ojibwa First Nations and the aboriginal commercial fishers they regulate and control have chosen not to do so. Despite continued, diehard opposition from many people in the local, non-Aboriginal community to their legally-confirmed Aboriginal fishing rights in the waters around Grey-Bruce, the Saugeen Ojibwa have chosen to chart the peaceful, patient path by voluntarily agreeing to keep their commercial fishing nets out of most of Owen Sound and Colpoy’s Bay. And from August 1 until Labour Day, now just past, they have further voluntarily agreed to stop commercial fishing in the outer bays in recognition of the increased recreational boat traffic during the popular Salmon Spectacular.

But when was the last time the Sydenham Sportsmen’s Association, which organizes and runs the derby, showed any appreciation for the Saugeen Ojibwa gesture, either visibly at the derby itself, or by way of a letter or a conciliatory invitation to the leadership or members of the Saugeen Ojibwa First Nations to attend and participate in some way in the event? Is that such an extraordinary or outrageous idea?

Yes, I suppose it is, given the gulf that separates the two sides, because of the troubled history of events surrounding the revival of the Aboriginal fishery in area waters in recent years, and the Sydenham Sportsmen’s continued refusal to accept that the Saugeen Ojibwa have a “priority right” in their traditional waters. Such conciliatory, appreciative, respectful gestures would, I suppose, seem to reflect recognition of that very right. So apparently nobody involved with the derby wants to go there. Meanwhile, the Saugeen Ojibwa strongly oppose the continued large-scale stocking of non-native salmon into Lake Huron and Georgian Bay waters, including by local anglers’ groups, with the blessing of the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources for the sake of the recreational fishery.

Owen Sound-Grey-Bruce MP Larry Miller has said he has friends among the First Nation people in his riding. I don’t doubt that for a moment, knowing Larry as well as I think I do, and considering I’m a pretty good judge of character. He’s a friendly guy with a generous, open nature. (I sometimes wonder why he chose to run for the Conservatives.)

I think Larry is well intentioned; but he sure has a lot to learn about Aboriginal affairs.

In his recent column Miller (getting back to proper journalistic style, lest anyone think I’m sounding too familiar) said, “natives want to be, and well should be, treated on an equal basis in this multi-cultural country…

“If we are all equal, then that also applies to the laws of the land. Anything less only breeds suspicions, misinformation, anger and racism.”

That sounds good, eh? I’m sure – in fact, I know – a lot of local, right wing conservatives would applaud and send up a cheer to hear that said out loud, in public. I heard just such a response a few years back at a Canadian Alliance (now Conservative) political rally in Owen Sound. I, too, years ago in my naiveté, used to believe that all First Nation people wanted or needed was to be treated as equals. But I have since come to understand that’s not true, that it’s not that simple. What they want is their rights, their “Aboriginal Rights” as broadly recognized under Section 35 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Yes, of course, under the same constitution they have the right to be treated equally. But Sec. 35 recognizes their special status and the special trust relationship First Nation people have long had with the British Crown and its governments.

Since 1982, the courts have repeatedly come to grips with and fleshed out what that means. Those precedent-setting cases have often gone to the Supreme Court of Canada, but not always.

In 1993 an Ontario provincial court judge acquitted two Chippewas of Nawash First Nation commercial fishermen of violating provincial fishery regulations. In so doing, the judge also confirmed, based on the evidence presented during the trial, the Saugeen Ojibwa’s constitutional, Aboriginal Right to fish commercially in their traditional waters, from Goderich in Lake Huron to southern Georgian Bay

“I accept,“ Judge J. Fairgrieve said in his ruling, “that a consequence of the constitutional recognition and affirmation given by s.35(1) to the defendants’ aboriginal and treaty rights to fish for commercial purposes is that the Saugeen Ojibwa Nation has priority over other user groups in the allocation of surplus fishery resources, once the needs of conservation have been met. . . Scrutiny of the government’s conservation plan discloses that anglers and non-Native commercial fishermen have in fact been favoured, and that the allocation of quotas to the Chippewas of Nawash, much less the Saugeen Ojibwa as a whole, did not reflect any recognition of their constitutional entitlement to priority over other competing user groups.”

The Ontario government of the day, which happened to be an NDP government under former Premier Bob Rae (now running for the leadership of the Liberal Party of Canada), did not appeal the Fairgrieve decision to a higher court, effectively making it the law.

But the decision left a lot open to discussion and negotiation between the province and the Saugeen Ojibwa, leading to a possible co management agreement. “Priority over other user groups” was clear enough, or should have been to any reasonable person. But what about “the needs of conservation” and the “allocation of surplus fishery resources”? And which government was, after all, in charge?

Obviously, the task ahead, arriving at an agreement, was going to be difficult. And it took more than a year for talks to get underway.

Then suddenly, in the summer of 1995, adverse reaction to the expansion of the Aboriginal fishery in area waters flared up. There were acts of violence against native people and native fishing equipment. It may not have been a “fishing war” as Miller criticized another Sun Times’ columnist, Francesca Dobbyn for suggesting. But he knows, or should know, what she meant. It was anything but peaceful.

In the best of all possible worlds, or even the somewhat less than best, I agree with Miller and Owen Sound-Grey-Bruce MPP Bill Murdoch that the fishery is a matter of public interest and the 2000 agreement and now the 2005 agreement should be public documents. I agree there should have been more openness when they were being negotiated. But in the angry, confrontational, even dangerous, post-Fairgrieve climate, it simply wasn’t possible, without fanning the flames.

And it probably still isn’t, not until the Sydenham Sportsmen and others accept the reality of the Aboriginal commercial fishery. Yes, I would like to know what’s in the fishery agreement. I also fear what’s in it, because I think it likely includes things that will anger the local angling establishment and, yes, possibly lead to another “fishing war.“

A lot of people need to know and understand a lot more than they do about the background of the fishery issue, the legal basis of the Aboriginal commercial fishery; and they need to know more about what’s going on in the ecology of Lake Huron-Georgian Bay waters, specifically, the reasons why Chinook salmon are getting smaller and less plentiful, or for that matter why whitefish are in trouble. It has nothing to do with the Aboriginal fishery, and everything to do with invasive species. But I wonder how many people who took part in the Salmon Spectacular went home blaming “the natives.”

In the present circumstances, with too many people still in denial about the legitimacy of the Aboriginal fishery, Murdoch and Miller’s demands to have the fishery agreement made fully public is a provocation, whether they realize it or not.

Ironically, the Salmon Spectacular is, and has been for more than 10 years, a great opportunity to help people become better informed and to begin building bridges. Instead, it still reflects the great divide. What, for example, does it say about their attitudes toward Aboriginal issues when 30 members of the federal Conservative’s Ontario caucus visit Owen Sound, take part in the Salmon Spectacular, and pay no attention to Aboriginal issues. Or if they did, is it a secret, like so much of what the Conservative government is doing under Canada’s secretive, media-loathing new Prime Minister? I trust our more open, accessible MP will try to do something about that.

Originally published in The Sun Times in 2006.

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