On February 1, 2018, the Honourable Dominic LeBlanc, Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard, announced proposed amendments to the Fisheries Act that will affect Canadians from coast to coast. With a focus on restoring protections for fish and fish habitat and developing new modernized industry safeguards (and an investment of $284 million to do so), the changes also include strengthening the role of Indigenous people in project reviews, monitoring and policy development.

Restoration, by definition, is the act of returning something to a former or original state. In the context of the proposed Fisheries Act changes, it means replacing the protective measures that were removed by the Harper government’s omnibus budget bill C-38 in the spring of 2012. The removal of these measures was damaging to fish and their habitats, and there is a cost associated with repairing that damage. Jim Lane, Uu-a-thluk Southern Region biologist, believes “Protection is of primary importance,” and that “there is a greater cost benefit to protecting fish and fish habitat than attempting to restore it.”

The initial public reaction to the replacement of the measures has been largely positive. “I hope that these amendments will not only bring greater protections to fish and their habitats but will provide a clear framework and path for First Nations to provide expertise, stewardship and be involved in decisions that affect our inherent rights,” said BC Regional Chief Terry Teegee on behalf of the British Columbia Assembly of First Nations in a February 7 media release.

“Protection is of primary importance,” and that “there is a greater cost benefit to protecting fish and fish habitat than attempting to restore it.” -Jim Lane, Uu-a-thluk Southern Region biologist.

While the government’s proposed requirement to consider the rights of Indigenous peoples and to incorporate ‘traditional knowledge’ into decision-making is positive, it fails to grasp the full scope of how First Nations want and expect to be involved. The review of the Fisheries Act that the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council submitted to Minister LeBlanc in September 2017 outlined a number of methods for achieving partnership and collaboration between the government and Nations that go beyond consultation. Nuuchah-nulth peoples have been managing natural resources sustainably for thousands of years, and this deep understanding and respect for the environment implies more than the term ‘traditional Indigenous knowledge.’ A better concept might be Indigenous governance, a concept that has begun to take on prominence in areas like water management.

Although the level of Indigenous involvement in future decision-making around fish and fish habitats may still be less than desired, the Liberal government’s stronger commitment to rebuilding depleted fish stocks to a state of abundance and to protect the safety of cetaceans in the proposed legislative changes is a welcome change. The updated Fisheries Act will make it illegal to capture whales, dolphins and porpoises in Canadian waters for the purpose of keeping them in captivity. In the future, these animals will only be captured if they are in distress, injured or in need of care.

Instituting protective measures is only half of the battle. According to Eric Angel, Program Manager for Uu-a-thluk, “Enforcement practices and the proper financial investment that would facilitate effective enforcement is critical to the successful protection of fish and fish habitats.” He would like to see the full restoration of a federally-funded Indigenous Guardian program that would benefit both fish habitats and Indigenous communities and sees it as an excellent opportunity to address enforcement.

The proposed legislative changes to the Fisheries Act must now undergo the process of ‘parliamentary mechanics’ before they are rolled out. Members of Parliament and senators will be given the opportunity to scrutinize and make improvements to the amendments, starting with the caucus discussion which took place on February 2. A debate including members of the opposition party in the House of Commons is part of the process, as is a review by the House Fisheries Committee. Minister LeBlanc’s goal for the proposed changes is to see them “Passing in a responsible and reasonable way,” though he gave no indication of how long that process will take.