Skip to main content

"I can't sustain my family on 190 pieces of chinook." Andrew Webster, a Nuu-chah-nulth elder, still relies on the seas for a living, but these days his aboriginal allocation from the federal government doesn't amount to much.

As a child, Mr. Webster would head out from his Ahousaht community in a dugout canoe to catch chinook salmon. He has been fishing the waters around Flores Island off Vancouver Island's west coast ever since. He bought a 36-foot troller in 1972, just in time to enjoy the good days, when herring prices went through the roof and the sockeye run was strong.

But last year, it was hardly even worth fuelling the Flora Queen.

Mr. Webster was skeptical when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised to develop a new nation-to-nation relationship with Canada's indigenous people. "It's all well and good to promise reconciliation," he said. "I knew it wasn't going to happen. One of the teachings from my father was, don't trust the government. They are not honourable people."

Others in his community who had been hopeful are now feeling let down.

Elmer Frank is chief councillor of a neighbouring Nuu-chah-nulth community, the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation. He was delighted last August when Mr. Trudeau accepted his invitation to attend a parade in his community on the west coast of Vancouver Island. The Prime Minister was vacationing with family in Tofino and, in between surfing, whale-watching and photo-bombing a beach wedding, took time out to sit with Chief Frank in the main parade float. Afterward, the chief said the moment provided his people with a lot of hope for the future.

Optimism – generated by the Prime Minister's promise to address aboriginal rights as a "sacred obligation" – has since turned to anger. Chief Frank has declared that Mr. Trudeau is no longer welcome in Tla-o-qui-aht territory, and the broader Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council has turned away federal fisheries negotiators in protest.

More than a year after the federal Liberals won, having promised significant legislative reforms aimed at recognizing and respecting aboriginal title and rights, the lack of progress is brewing frustration. Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, a former regional chief for the Assembly of First Nations, faces a significant task to bring Canada's laws into line with her government's commitments – and her people's expectations.

At issue in this case is the Nuu-chah-nulth people's right to fish for a living. They are presently in court doing precisely what Ms. Wilson-Raybould said they shouldn't have to do: Fight battles already won.

In 2009, the Supreme Court of British Columbia ruled the Nuu-chah-nulth have an aboriginal right to fish for any species in their territories, and to sell those fish.

Since then, the federal fisheries department has approved harvests of gooseneck barnacles and chinook salmon, but turned down everything else the Nuu-chah-nulth have proposed.

The tribal council is back in court seeking to have Ottawa to recognize their rights. The British Columbia government, in a gesture of reconciliation, has abandoned the case but next week the federal government will be making final arguments in a bid to limit aboriginal commercial-fishing rights. (Or, as officials with Fisheries and Oceans Canada prefer to describe it, to maintain "stability and predictability for all fish harvesters in British Columbia.")

Ken Watts is a senior tribal leader of the Nuu-chah-nulth who travelled to Quebec shortly after Mr. Trudeau took office to present him with a gift – a woven cedar whaler's hat, traditionally worn by people of high status.

"The whaler's hat was a sign of good faith on behalf of our nations, it was an invitation to sit down and work together," Mr. Watts said in a recent interview. "It was a new day with this Prime Minister and we were excited about it."

But as the months passed, the Nuu-chah-nulth found they faced the same old obstacles in the courts and at the negotiating table. Andrew Webster and others in the fishery-dependent community still can't make a living, he said.

"Our nation finds it very frustrating when the words are out there but the action is not occurring on the ground," Mr. Watts said.

That frustration is directed squarely at Mr. Trudeau: "He is the one who can tell his ministers, ministry staff and their legal staff to reflect his commitment to indigenous people – and until he does that the nation has said he is not welcome in the territory."

Rolling up the welcome mat is a symbolic gesture, but it offers Ottawa a reminder that goodwill has a shelf life.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe