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A sockeye salmon is reeled in by a fisherman along the shores of the Fraser River near Chilliwack, B.C., in 2010. (Jonathan Hayward/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
A sockeye salmon is reeled in by a fisherman along the shores of the Fraser River near Chilliwack, B.C., in 2010. (Jonathan Hayward/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

After 200 court appearances, Sto:Lo woman is free to fish again Add to ...

Patricia Kelly’s long, hard road to justice began in the summer of 2004, when federal fisheries officers surrounded her outside a processing plant in the Fraser Valley.

After a five-hour standoff, in which Ms. Kelly says she refused to come down from atop a crate she had packed with ice and about 300 fresh Fraser River sockeye, she was charged with illegally possessing and selling salmon.

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“I argued I had constitutional, protected rights. But the DFO officer said: ‘Tell it to a judge,’” she said in recalling the incident.

Now, after defending herself for nine years, in which she made more than 200 court appearances, Ms. Kelly has done just that – winning an absolute discharge in the process.

In a decision handed down in British Columbia provincial court in Chilliwack earlier this month. Ms. Kelly also got an order that the federal government must pay her about $2,500 for the salmon seized in 2004.

Federal Crown prosecutor Finn Jensen could not be reached for comment, but details of the verbal decision were reported by the Chilliwack Times.

In an interview Tuesday, the Sto:Lo woman alternately wept and sounded defiant, saying the marathon legal battle left her feeling “exhausted and broken.” But she said she has struck a blow for aboriginal rights and plans to move back to B.C. from her new home in Alberta to fish the Fraser River again this summer.

“Yes. I am going fishing again,” she said. “And I’m not going after a permit. … I don’t need a permit from Canada. I’m unceded. I’m unconquered.”

Ms. Kelly, who also goes by her native name, Kwitsel Tatel, argued throughout her legal battle that because the Sto:lo do not have a treaty with the government, she does not need the federal government’s approval to catch or trade fish. She said the fish she caught in the summer of 2004 were gathered on behalf of her large family, in preparation for ceremonies that were planned for that winter.

“We had cultural work to do as a family with those fish,” she said.

The Crown sought a fine and a conditional sentence, arguing she’d caught the salmon outside of a federally approved aboriginal fishery.

Ms. Kelly said she never doubted she would win the case, but she cried when she recounted how she was taken into custody at the courthouse on one occasion, for playing a drum and chanting. “It’s sacred and it’s right. Nobody can stop me from doing that,” she said of the native drumming ritual.

But court sheriffs did. “They detained me. They did two vaginal-anal checks on me,” she said, sobbing. “It’s so humiliating. This is ridiculing. It’s awful. It causes a big heartache to even say that.”

Ms. Kelly said she missed a court appearance during the legal fight, and in response the RCMP issued a Crimestoppers sheet with her mug shot on it. She said she was shocked when family members told her the Crimestoppers bulletin had appeared in the local newspaper.

“I felt criminalized,” she said. “I felt humbled before my family and to people I was looking to get work with. It hurt so much.”

Ms. Kelly said the case put her under immense emotional and financial pressure and took a toll on her family life. She moved to Alberta to have a fresh start, but now that the case has ended, she plans to move back to B.C. She said she learned of the May 9 court decision in an e-mail.

“I said amen. I’m thankful for the judge hearing me out,” she said.

Ms. Kelly said the legal battle was an ordeal, but she’s glad she stuck with it: “I feel proud I stood up. I stood in the house of law and I ruled.”

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