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B.C.'s salmon wars about ownership, not race Add to ...

Harry Swain is a former federal deputy minister of Industry Canada and Indian and Northern Affairs Canada

A recent Globe and Mail column echoed the complaint of the white commercial fishermen about the unfairness of the “race-based” fishery on B.C.'s Fraser River, comparing Indian preference to the betrayal of the non-native residents of Caledonia, Ont., by their timid police and provincial government.

The column did not mention the sorry history of the Mohawks and the Haldimand grant in Ontario, just as in B.C. it misses a big part of the story. In truth, it’s about ownership, not race.

In the 1840’s, when coastal B.C. was run by the Hudson’s Bay Company, the fur-trading factors wanted to concentrate the efforts of their expensive imported (mostly Scottish) labour on the profitable business of fur. When local Indian communities - then the owners and long-time sole exploiters of the fisheries - offered to supply food in trade for cloth and kettles, Governor James Douglas was delighted. He set aside small tracts of land for settlements and kitchen gardens, and because these old villages were usually located on the seashore - beside favoured shellfish grounds - he included what we would now call the associated water lots. A comfortable division of labour continued through the establishment of the Crown Colony of B.C. in 1858 and beyond. Pre-Confederation legislation recognized Indian ownership of important fishing stances along the rivers, which were often leased, in a sophisticated display of ownership rights, to Interior tribes for specific periods of a salmon run.

Gold was discovered in the Fraser and the Cariboo, however, bringing a pulse of European and Chinese men to work the deposits and later, in the 1880s, build the CPR. And the first steps toward turning salmon from something that had to be eaten fresh or smoked into an internationally tradable commodity were taken. Canning, which had started early enough to poison Sir John Franklin’s expedition in the 1840s with lead leached from solder, became widespread under the impetus of the U.S. Civil War. Small canneries spread up and down the B.C. Coast. Suddenly native and white fishermen were competing for what had always been an Indian monopoly. Salmon were caught from small boats, rowed or sailed only a few miles from the nearest cannery, in order that they could be delivered fresh in this period before refrigeration and ice plants.

But at least a flow of income continued to the coastal villages, as Indian women went to work in the little plants. Traditional social roles took a bit of a battering, of course, as women took on wage jobs.

A second technological revolution, starting in the 1890s and effectively completed under the lash of the First World War, changed roles even more radically. Internal combustion engines allowed fishing boats to move faster and farther, and fast buy-boats ferried the catch to larger, fewer, and more efficient canneries. Consolidation meant that the local plants that offered employment to people along the coast started to disappear.

Meanwhile the colonial-era legislation that had effectively confirmed the Indians in their existing monopoly of the salmon was swamped under a constitution for the new Canada, written in places like Charlottetown, Quebec, Halifax and Ottawa (sensitive as they still are to facts on the ground 3,000 miles away). The British North America Act of 1867 and, a year later, the new federal Fisheries Act, reserved power over the saltwater fisheries solely to Ottawa. Bit by bit, “ownership” shifted without compensation or even consultation from natives to a distant Crown. And the flood of immigrants continued.

Technology changed social roles in coastal communities, at first empowering women, then disempowering both native fishermen and female plant workers. The new boats required capital the Indians did not have, and which the 1876 Indian Act effectively prohibited them from accumulating. Slowly, over a period of generations, what had for millennia been an Indian monopoly became licensed principally to non-native fishermen. Half-hearted reforms in the period since 1982 have resulted in Indians holding a number of commercial licenses, as well as having their access to salmon for food and ceremonial purposes confirmed through the Charter, but high-flown words often lead to conflict on the water, where tough, hard-working men of both backgrounds either don’t know this little history, or figure it doesn’t apply in the 21st century.

Setting this story against the recent history of salmon declines (except for the unexplained cornucopia of 2010 along the Fraser) may illustrate what happens when over-generous licensing and ever-better fish predation technologies collide with climate change. Whatever the source, we have a lot of unhappy people chasing generally fewer salmon each year. Even trickier, the largest and most aggrieved group, the non-native commercial fishers, adds the least value to the provincial economy per fish.

A fine salmon sliced, steamed and canned is worth a few dollars a pound at most. When caught by a sports angler, it may cost several hundred dollars a pound. Economic rationality would suggest that, beyond the needs of conservation and the constitutionally guaranteed Indian fishery, the entire commercial fishery should give way to serving those vast hordes of fellows who spend like sheikhs on boats, guides, lures, gear, accommodations, and even, it has been hinted, potable fluids - to the considerable enrichment of all in the province. An equitable buy-out could increase jobs and income for all.

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