NATIONAL

Risking a race war on the river

Harper’s challenge to a ‘racially divided’ fishery sparks outrage

KEN MACQUEEN October 9 2006
NATIONAL

Risking a race war on the river

Harper’s challenge to a ‘racially divided’ fishery sparks outrage

KEN MACQUEEN October 9 2006

Risking a race war on the river

Harper’s challenge to a ‘racially divided’ fishery sparks outrage

NATIONAL

KEN MACQUEEN

It’s a sun-drenched Friday afternoon and members of the tiny Cheam First Nation are gathered for the weekend on the south shore of the Fraser River above Chilliwack, B.C., drawn here, as they have always been, by the cycle of the salmon. They span the generations, from wizened elders in lawn chairs to toddlers splashing in the sandy shallows. A row of open aluminum boats are anchored at the beach. The fishermen await a turn on the water—the order dictated by a pencilled list on a leaf of notebook paper. When their names come up, men like 40-year-old Rick Quipp, his skin lined and leathery from a lifetime on the water, roar upstream and set 100 m of drift net. It rides the current for about 15 minutes, until it’s hauled out near the Rosedale-Agassiz bridge. Depending on luck and time of day, there may be 20 fat sockeye thrashing in the net, or 100.

It’s an idyllic scene, and one that speaks to a new but fragile peace in a fishery that has long been roiled by antipathy between native and non-native fishermen. This has been a banner year for Fraser sockeye. The estimated catch by mid-September was almost 5.3 million, “the largest since 1997,” says the Pacific Salmon Commission. You wouldn’t know it,

though, by the words of Prime Minister Stephen Harper. In July, Harper unveiled a major shift in fishery policy in B.C. “Let me also be clear,” he wrote in a letter to the Calgary Herald, “in the coming months, we will strike a judicial inquiry into the collapse of the Fraser River salmon fishery and oppose racially divided fisheries programs.” The inquiry’s start is still months away, says Steve Outhouse, spokesman for Fisheries Minister Loyola Hearn. But as for Harper’s remarks, “that letter stands,” says Outhouse.

The missive’s politically charged wording puzzled some and angered others. “You’d be hard-pressed to say there is a collapse,” concedes Bert Ionson, Pacific salmon regional resource manager for Fisheries and Oceans Canada. “The Fraser River return is a very healthy return.” Many in the commercial fleet blame Harper for misleading consumers into thinking that salmon are going the way of the Atlantic cod. “Members of the public think, ‘what the hell are they doing fishing?’ ” says Dave Barrett, executive director of the Commercial Salmon Advisory Board, representing commercial licensees along the coast. “These people depend on the resource, they’re not going to fish it out.”

As well, the timing of Harper’s call to end the “racially divided” fishery comes during probably the most peaceful season on the river since a controversial commercial fishery for Aboriginals was created in 1992, after fishing rights were confirmed in a string of

court decisions. Harper’s letter conflicts with tentative treaties just signed by negotiators for two B.C. Indian bands, the provincial government—and Ottawa. The deals give the Tsawwassen and the Lheidli T’enneh First Nations the right to sell a guaranteed share of their Fraser sockeye catch. “There is a huge disparity between Mr. Harper’s pledge to end native-only fishing rights and what has been happening at the treaty negotiating tables in recent weeks,” says Anita Neville, fisheries critic for the federal Liberals.

The treaties mark rare progress in a province covered with unresolved claims. If Harper vetoes the deals, future talks will likely be jeopardized. This season has also seen a rapprochement between commercial fishermen, as represented by the salmon advisory board, and many of the bands involved in the

native commercial fishery. The groups have often battled over their shares of the catch. This summer, however, they jointly worked out a plan to restore the habitat of the endangered Cultus Lake salmon run. They have even invited observers on each other’s boats to foster better understanding. “The progress that we’ve made in the last couple of months has been without government,” says Barrett.

The peace, though, is fragile. “It’s threatened by this goofy decision made by the Prime Minister,” says Doug Kelly, a grand chief of the Stodo Tribal Council, representing many bands along the river. “No one wants to see a big inquiry,” says Kelly. “All that does is play the blame game.” Several native leaders accuse Harper of fanning racism in an attempt to win some hard-right voters. “That

kind of politics, where the Prime Minister appears to be catering to a small group of people, when he’s intent on a majority government, is nonsensical,” says Kelly.

The call for an inquiry, however, is strongly endorsed, and may have been inspired, by Conservative MP John Cummins, a veteran fisherman. Cummins, whose Delta-Richmond East riding straddles the river, is a long-time critic of the Fisheries Department in general, and of the Aboriginal fishery in particular. He says the native fishery is poorly enforced and its catch is vastly under-reported. “The department,” he says, “is in complete disarray.” Cummins expects Harper’s opposition to race-based fishing rights extends to treaty

NATIVE LEADERS ACCUSE HARPER OF FANNING RACISM TO WIN VOTES. ‘IT’S NONSENSICAL/ SAYS ONE.

negotiations. “That would be the logical conclusion to me,” he says. “Why would you say, ‘we don’t like this as a government policy, but we will enshrine it in the treaties?’ ” Upriver this afternoon, Quipp watches his 16-year-old son set a net. The Cheam are among the most militant bands in B.C. in asserting their fishing rights. The reserve in past years has been the site of confrontations, and armed standoffs. Quipp himself faces 18 outstanding fisheries charges. He sees no value in fisheries agreements of any sort; salmon, he says, are his birthright. The idea that Harper may move to end a “racially divided” fishery is too absurd to be taken seriously: “I’m not sure how he’s going to do it,” he says, cracking a humourless smile. “We’re still going to be here even after he’s gone.” M