No Nets in Colpoy’s Bay

It boggles the mind. Where to begin? There are so many things wrong with the-affair-of-the-commercial-nets-in-Colpoy’s-Bay-last-weekend-that-weren’t-there-after-all that I’m tempted to say it sounds like the proverbial “comedy of errors,” starting with a couple of members of the Bruce Peninsula Sportsmen’s Association jumping to the conclusion that a First Nation fishing tug going slow on its way to the Colpoy’s Bay government dock must have been setting nets.

And then there was that marker buoy out in the bay, visible from the dock. What else could it be but a buoy marking the presence of nets, as is the practice when they’re set? To make matters worse there it was it was in a front page photo in Saturday’s edition of this newspaper, proof positive apparently that, yes, indeed, a First Nation commercial fisherman had committed the absolutely unpardonable sin of setting nets in Colpoy’s Bay when those waters are busy with non-Aboriginal sports fishers during the annual semi-sacred ritual known as the Owen Sound Salmon Spectacular fishing derby.

Turns out there were no nets, the First Nation commercial netter was returning slowly to the Colpoy’s Bay dock last Friday morning because of engine trouble, and the marker buoy is a racing buoy set up by the Wiarton Yacht Club. It’s been there in the same position, in the waters off the Colpoy’s Bay dock for 30 years, said the club’s racing director.

Within hours of the supposed sighting of the nets supposedly being set in the Bay the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources spokesperson was able to confirm there were no nets. A ministry official had been able to speak to the First Nation fisherman involved, and it was “much ado about nothing,” she said.

By Sunday, Bruce Peninsula Sportsmen’s Association president Dave Leggatt admitted two club members who thought they saw the fishing tug setting nets may have been wrong, though he waffled about it enough to leave open the possibility that they may have been right. “Even with a good set of field glasses you couldn’t see the nets actually going out of the boat. But they were going along the shore at a speed that they would normally put nets out,” he told Sun Times reporter Scott Dunn.

But Leggatt added he understood the commercial fisherman told the ministry official he was having engine trouble and so was motoring close to shore. On my way back and forth to Wiarton and Owen Sound from up here at Hopeness I’ve seen the fishing tug which I presume to be the one involved in this affair tied up at the Colpoy’s Bay dock recently . It makes sense that a First Nation fisherman working the waters off the big islands out past the mouth of the bay would use that dock, as handy as it is to the Chippewas of Nawash community at Cape Croker.

It’s clear enough now no nets were set in Colpoy’s Bay. But the damage has been done: the gulf that has separated the First Nation community of this area from the non-Aboriginal community just got wider. Sadly, it’s a vicious circle: The lack of any effective lines of communication between First Nation commercial fishers and predominantly non-Aboriginal sports fishers, including local sportsmen’s clubs, means such misunderstandings are liable to keep happening.

But what I find most astounding and disappointing is the role our local MP and MPP are playing in this ongoing tragedy of “two solitudes” sharing the same area. Is it too much to expect that, at least to some extent, the two First Nations of the Saugeen Ojibway and the non-aboriginal communities of Grey-Bruce could form one community of shared interests? Naively perhaps, I’ve always thought so, and hoped so. But there’s little sign now it’s happening. But so far as I can tell – and no doubt they will correct me if I’m wrong – Bruce Grey-Owen Sound MP Larry Miller and MPP Bill Murdoch have not been bridge-builders. And that’s inexcusable; however few votes local First Nation people cast in federal and provincial elections, they are part of the constituency of both senior government representatives.

Yet, apparently our MP has so little contact with the Saugeen Ojibway communities, including the Nawash at Cape Croker, such poor lines of communication, that he was not able to make a phone call or send an e-mail to, say, the band administration or fisheries office at Cape Croker, or someone in the know, to find out more about what, if anything, was going on in Colpoy’s Bay last weekend. Instead, he took second-hand and, as it turned out, second-rate information and fired off an impulsive, harshly worded news release that has no doubt done further harm to the already badly damaged relations between the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal  communities in his riding.

It’s been 17 years since the Saugeen Ojibway had their right to fish commercially in the waters of Georgian Bay and Lake Huron re-affirmed in principle, and restored in action. It was a right they never surrendered and should never have lost. There is nothing in law that prevents First Nation people from setting their nets in Colpoy’s Bay, or Owen Sound, for that matter. But they have, in a spirit of cooperation agreed not to set them during the fish derby season. Yes, there have been a couple of incidents in recent years, which were quickly rectified by the First Nation leadership when brought to their attention. That certainly reflects a measure of good faith and cooperation on the First Nation side.

But nothing that happened last weekend reflects any measure of good faith and cooperation on the other side. Larry Miller may have shored up his support in a segment of the non-Aboriginal community for the upcoming federal election. But he has otherwise not served the well-being of his broader community well.

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