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Nuu-chah-nulth win right to sell

VANCOUVER, British Columbia – When traveling along West Coast Highway 4 through the Tseshaht First Nation Reservation, you’ll see a line of signs advertising “Salmon.” Home to one of the west coast’s largest sockeye salmon runs, the Tseshaht Nation enjoys an abundance of fish, but under federal government rules they’re not legally permitted to sell the thousands of sockeye caught for “food, social and ceremonial purposes,” although a black market fishery has existed for decades.

“I catch hundreds of fish for my family each season, but whose kids want to eat fish for breakfast, lunch and dinner every day?” said Tseshaht fisherman Martin Watts. “You need some chicken or ground beef once in a while too.”

Now, fishermen like Watts will be able to sell their catch, and advertise “Salmon For Sale,” instead of the old signs written to barely skirt Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) rules.

After spending more than $1 million on a decade of legal research followed by 123 days in court over the past four years, the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations of the west coast of Vancouver Island are celebrating a major court decision affirming their right to catch and sell fish.

In a judgement released Nov. 3, British Columbia Supreme Court Justice Nicole Garson ruled the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations have an aboriginal right to harvest and sell all species of fish found within their territories.

“At contact, the Nuu-chah-nulth were overwhelmingly a fishing people,” wrote Garson in her 307-page judgement. “They depended almost entirely on their harvest of the resources of the ocean and rivers to sustain themselves,” she wrote, adding Nuu-chah-nulth people were able to prove a long history of trading and selling fisheries resources.

Early European explorers including Captain Cook documented trading with Nuu-chah-nulth Nations, noting their clear ownership of all resources within their territories.

“Today this decision confirms what we’ve known all along. We have been stewards of our ocean resources for hundreds of generations, and the Government of Canada was wrong to push us aside in their attempts to prohibit our access to the sea resources our people depend upon,” said NTC President Cliff Atleo Sr.

Since time immemorial, Nuu-chah-nulth people have built their societies, economies and culture around fishing. After Confederation, Canada encouraged the Nuu-chah-nulth to remain fishing people by allocating small fishing stations as reserves while denying the larger land claims of the Nuu-chah-nulth. More than 100 years of regulations by Canada have diminished Nuu-chah-nulth participation in the West Coast fishery.

Attempts to reach negotiated settlements through the treaty process produced few results. In June 2003, Nuu-chah-nulth plaintiff nations filed a Writ of Summons against Canada and British Columbia seeking reconciliation.

The claims of the nations are based on aboriginal rights to harvest and sell sea resources, aboriginal title to fishing territories and fishing sites, and the unique obligations of the Crown arising through the reserve-creation process.

“First the government said we didn’t need much land because we were ocean-going peoples, then they took away our access to those ocean resources,” Atleo said. “Today we hope we can move forward with this decision, and trust the government will work with us for the benefit of all west coast communities.”

The ruling is similar to the 1973 Boldt decision in Washington state that gave tribes equal access to commercial fisheries. One of the key witnesses in the Nuu-chah-nulth case was anthropologist Dr. Barbara Lane, who had also served as one of the lead anthropologists in the U.S. decision.

More than 100 Nuu-chah-nulth members traveled from their remote west coast communities to celebrate their victory on the steps of the Vancouver Law Courts Nov. 3.

Thousands of miles away, in the Canadian capital of Ottawa, Ahousaht Hereditary Chief Shawn “A-in-chut” Atleo “did a happy dance” after hearing of the ruling. “The number of court cases in our favor just keep piling up, and I’ll be pressing the governments to implement the decision immediately,” said Atleo, who was recently elected National Chief of the powerful Assembly of First Nations.

While Garson’s decision is a clear victory for Nuu-chah-nulth, she was clear in her ruling that the aboriginal right to harvest and sell fish is not an unrestricted commercial right, and implementation will require negotiations with the governments of British Columbia and Canada.

“Aboriginal rights are human rights,” Atleo said. “Nuu-chah-nulth are eager to begin positive discussions with the governments on the BC Supreme Court decision. We sincerely hope the Government of Canada will recognize the importance of this decision, and will not waste valuable court time and taxpayer money through appealing this landmark BC Supreme Court ruling.”

With the ruling in hand, Watts hopes this coming sockeye season will benefit his family as it once benefited his ancestors. “We’ve always shared our catch. We’ve always traded our fish with others. It’s about time we’re allowed to do that again.”