Nuu-chah-nulth Nations are through with asking the Department of Fisheries and Oceans for permission to harvest food and ceremonial fish in territories other than their own. Led by the example of Ahousaht First Nation and the late Darrell Campbell, Nuu-chah-nulth are instead forming alliances with other Nations through their Ha’wiih.
“In the old days, Ha-houlthee was very strict in terms of boundaries,” said NTC President Cliff Atleo at a recent forum on fisheries. “You had to formally ask for permission. If there was a shortage of resources in one’s territory, you made an arrangement with the chief to secure access elsewhere.”
Today all First Nations in Canada have the right to harvest fish for food and ceremonial use. This right was defined in 1990 by the Supreme Court of Canada in what is known as the Sparrow decision. The decision states that First Nations are second only to conservation.
However, Canada’s fisheries managers continually restrict First Nations access to that fish. Said Atleo, “We are second to conservation, but nowhere does it say that we should be restricted to our Ha-houlthee. Nowhere does it say that DFO can ignore agreements between Nations.”
In fact, DFO repeatedly restricts First Nations by enforcing outdated communal licences linked to food and ceremonial fisheries. These licences come with allocations that haven’t been updated since the mid 1990s. At the same time, First Nations populations have been growing steadily.
DFO prohibits Nations from fishing outside their territory through something called the “adjacency policy.” While not official DFO policy, the adjacency issue has led to the seizure of fish for more than one Nation trying to feed its people.
Enter Ahousaht First Nation, who decided to stop following DFO rules last summer and start asking for permission from Ha’wiih and other First Nations chiefs. The idea was spearheaded by the late Darrell Campbell, fisheries manager for Ahousaht, until his untimely death in August.
“Talks weren’t going well with DFO,” says Curtis Dick, the Ahousaht councillor now sitting in for Campbell on a variety of projects. “DFO wasn’t consulting Ahousaht, and Darrell was very upset. He let them know their treatment of First Nations was not right. He drafted up a protocol agreement and let DFO know how many pieces Ahousaht would be getting from the Laich-Kwil-Tach [Treaty Society].”
Although DFO sent a letter to Ahousaht expressing their disagreement with the situation, an Ahousaht delegation travelled to Campbell River to present the Laich-Kwil-Tach Treaty Society with gifts and acknowledgements. After this traditional exchange, Ahousaht Ha’wiih and the hereditary leadership of the Wewaikai, Weiwaikum, and Kwiakah First Nations later signed a protocol agreement for the exchange of more than 6,000 sockeye and 2,000 pink.
“They were very cooperative, very helpful,” says Dick. “It was probably the most beneficial agreement we’ve had in a long time—it really helped out our people.”
Impressed by Ahousaht’s—and Campbell’s—example, other Nuu-chah-nulth Nations are travelling to Penticton this November to talk to BC First Nations about enacting similar protocol agreements. Tired of the decades-long battle to feed their people, Nations are taking action.
The goal is to work with other First Nations affected by DFO restrictions while attending the annual conference hosted by the First Nations Fisheries Council. More than 100 Nations are expected.
“I think the important part about this is the work that we created…to hopefully help other First Nations meet their needs for home use,” says Dick. “[Before his death] Darrell said, ‘You have to stop asking for DFO’s permission. You have to get it from your Ha’wiih.’”