When Gail Sparrow, former chief of the Musqueam band, started getting calls last summer from single mothers on the reserve who couldn't find any food fish, she became alarmed.
About 30 million sockeye had just come booming back to the Fraser River, the biggest run in a century, and nobody expected native fishermen to have any problems catching their limit.
Because of the big run, first nations were allocated more than two million Fraser River sockeye, of which 880,000 were for food, social and ceremonial purposes, while the rest were covered by "economic opportunity" agreements that allowed the fish to be sold.
But the FSC salmon, which are supposed to be distributed to band members, just weren't there in the numbers they should have been, even though boats were coming in laden with catch and packer trucks were roaring through the reserve at night. Some people got FSC fish. Many didn't.
"Myself and others were just livid," Ms. Sparrow told The Globe and Mail Thursday. "There are a lot of women … who have families, who are single … they were phoning me at home. 'Where's our fish? When are we going to get our fish? "
It didn't take Ms. Sparrow long to find out - large numbers of food fish, she claims, were taken off reserve by aboriginal fishermen who were laundering them into the market.
"They take the food fish … and they hold it in big tanks on their boats and when there is a commercial opening, boom, they just mix it," said Ms. Sparrow, a business consultant on the Musqueam reserve, which has a population of 1,200 just outside Vancouver at the mouth of the Fraser River.
She said the practice is part of a flourishing black market on the West Coast fed by fishermen who have abandoned their traditional role of supplying communities with food fish in favour of pursuing individual profit.
Ms. Sparrow decided to speak publicly after reading a news story in The Globe this week about the illegal sale of FSC fish. The story was based on comments made by Department of Fisheries and Oceans enforcement officers at the Cohen Commission inquiry into the decline of sockeye stocks on the Fraser.
As a former cannery worker and a member of a famous fishing family (in 1990 her uncle, Ronald Sparrow, helped define the aboriginal right to fish in a Supreme Court case), Ms. Sparrow thought she knew where the food fish were going.
She called a cold storage plant known to handle native-caught fish, and asked if there were any Musqueam salmon there.
The operator had eight totes, part of a steady stream he said was coming through from the small reserve. A tote is a large box used to transport salmon from dockside to processing plants. Ms. Sparrow has packed totes and knows one holds 300 sockeye.
"So that's 2,400 and I don't know how many in total [through the season] … And I just said to him nicely, 'Will that fish be coming back to Musqueam?' And he says, 'No, this fish will be frozen and sent off to another freezer in Langley.' So I said, 'Oh … because we haven't got our allocation yet.' And he says, 'Well, the names I have here [for the owners]are Musqueam, but no, it's not for your community.' "
Ms. Sparrow said some people didn't like her nosing around.
"I get a phone call later on from two fishermen, swearing at me, 'You so and so bitch, you have no business looking into our fish.' … And I said, 'Hey guys, back off here … why are you putting food fish in a freezer and why aren't you bringing it home?' And of course I was threatened. 'You shut up or you won't get nothing.' And I didn't get anything. In the end I had to buy [my salmon]from somebody."
Some women, she said, went to the docks "hat in hand" and begged for salmon. They got 10 at most. Others had to do as she did and buy fish.
"I don't have any fish left from last year at all and a lot of us don't have anything," she said.
Ms. Sparrow said most people on reserves are afraid to challenge the illegal fish dealers.
"If you confronted them about anything, they would rant on you. They would threaten you. … So you had to be careful because they are dangerous. You just don't mess with them," she said. "I'm not afraid of them, mind you, but the other people just run away."