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British Columbia First Nation’s right to commercial fishery upheld by B.C. appeals court

Members of the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nation celebrate a court victory in Vancouver on Nov. 3, 2009.

Lyle Stafford/The Globe and Mail

The 10-year legal fight over fish and shellfish fisheries wound its way to the Supreme Court of Canada before the final word was released Wednesday from the province's appeal court.

The Nuu-chah-nulth went to court saying its people have been fishing and trading their catch long before Europeans arrived, and that translates to modern-commercial fishing rights.

The Canadian and B.C. governments, along with several interveners, challenged the claim to the Supreme Court of Canada, which then referred the case back to the B.C. Court of Appeal.

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The appeal court has now upheld the lower court ruling that said the Nuu-chah-nulth had long-standing trade networks, and that trading in fisheries resources was part of the culture around the time of first contact.

"The evidence that was accepted by the trial judge supported the thesis that a variety of fish species were harvested and traded by ancestors of the respondents," Justice John Hall said in his ruling.

The Nuu-chah-nulth represent more than a dozen First Nations on the west coast of Vancouver Island, including the Ahousaht, home to Assembly of First Nations Chief Shawn Atleo.

Atleo praised the decision and said the ruling should spur the federal government to negotiate a commercial harvest for the Nuu-cha-nulth.

"Once again the courts have upheld our inherent rights to a commercial fishery as we, the Nuu-chah-nulth, have fully demonstrated that both harvesting and selling fish were and continue to be integral to our society and economy," Atleo said in a news release.

"Governments must finally get to the negotiating table as instructed by the courts to recognize and reconcile our rights."

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