Indian Affairs Minister Jim Prentice told a gathering of native chiefs that his government will not support a "racially segregated" commercial fishery in spite of warnings that using such language will fuel anti-aboriginal sentiment.
Confirming the controversial comments Prime Minister Stephen Harper made in a recent letter to the editor that appeared in the Calgary Herald, Mr. Prentice said the Conservative government will appoint a "fair-minded" person to head a judicial inquiry to find out why salmon stocks in the Fraser River are in decline.
"We are not supportive of a racially segregated fishery," Mr. Prentice told chiefs gathered for a meeting of the Assembly of First Nations.
"We are supportive of a policy of equality of access to the commercial fishery."
Mr. Prentice said the first responsibility of the federal government is to conserve the fish stock. If the supply of fish is stable, he said, natives have first right to the fish for non-commercial uses only.
"There is an aboriginal right to fish for food and ceremonial purposes. There is no constitutional right to have the commercial fishery segregated on a racial basis. No court has ever said that," he said.
The 1999 Marshall Supreme Court decision on the East Coast fishery did say that treaty rights allowed the Mi'kmaq and Maliseet to pursue a "moderate livelihood" from the fishery, but Mr. Prentice said in an interview that the ruling was "site specific."
Several of the chiefs were openly hostile to Mr. Prentice during a question-and-answer session after his speech.
The native chiefs said their access to the fishery is based on both the geography of where the river flows through their lands and their treaty rights, not race.
"The segregated fishery or race-based fishery comments, do you know what that does to our people in the community, in the schools, at home in terms of interacting with the non-native community? It fuels the fire of prejudice and discrimination. That's what it does, Mr. Minister," said Chief Dan Smith of Campbell River First Nation, within which the Fraser River flows.
In an interview, Mr. Prentice said his government plans to buy out some non-native fishermen as early as next year and give their allotment to first nations for economic-development purposes rather than because of rights.
Before Mr. Prentice's speech, newly re-elected National Chief Phil Fontaine and the AFN regional chiefs from both coasts held a press conference to state that they do not support a judicial inquiry into the Fraser River fishery, which was part of the Conservative election platform.
Mr. Fontaine said he is worried the Conservatives will appoint someone who opposes native fishing rights as a way of building a case to withdraw from the current program. Since 1992, the federal government has allotted a portion of the Fraser River commercial fishery to the main native groups in the area.
Mr. Prentice rejected Mr. Fontaine's prediction, but would not commit to allowing the AFN to approve the judicial appointee.
His detailed speech also outlined his three priorities, which he said are quality-of-life issues such as water and education, new legislation to replace the Indian Act and making native governments more accountable to their people, and a new system to resolve treaty disputes.
After he addressed the fishery controversy, he defended his government's decision to vote against the Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples at the United Nations last month.
Mr. Fontaine and other native leaders criticized Canada numerous times this week for siding with Russia as the only two countries on the UN Human Rights Council to vote against the declaration, which Canada had advocated under the Liberals.
"The current legal text lacks clarity and precision," said Mr. Prentice, adding Canada may support it this fall when it faces a vote by the full UN if there are changes.