First Nation bans non-Native boat access in traditional territory

The Stz’uminus First Nation says it is prohibiting boat traffic within its traditional core territory, the area shaded above. - courtesy Stz’uminus First Nation
The Stz’uminus First Nation says it is prohibiting boat traffic within its traditional core territory, the area shaded above.
— image credit: courtesy Stz’uminus First Nation

The Stz’uminus (Chemainus) First Nation has pledged to prohibit boat traffic in a large chunk of coastal Cowichan waters.

The area affected includes everything north of Maple Bay, from Sansum Narrows right up to Dodds Narrows south of Nanaimo.

“Until further notice, Stz’uminus First Nation will prohibit access to its core territory in the Salish Sea by all vessels, including but not limited to, commercial fishing vessels, Fisheries and Oceans Canada vessels, and any non-Native civilians and government officials,” John Elliott, chief of the Ladysmith-area band said in a statement released Friday.

It is not clear at this time what steps the band may take in an attempt to enforce its declaration.

But it is clear the move stems from deep dissatisfaction about the way the federal government has dealt with fishing rights within the territory in question.

“The ongoing actions of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans have failed to follow federal Aboriginal consultation and accommodation laws, failed to appropriately manage or allow for co-management of fisheries within our territory and, ultimately, have failed to recognize Aboriginal Rights and Title,” Elliott writes.

“The DFO continues to favour existing commercial monopolies and continues to inadequately consult with Aboriginal groups when enacting policy,” he wrote. “Due to its gross mismanagement and failure to follow government mandates, we can no longer allow the Department of Fisheries and Oceans to manage fisheries within our territory. We cannot stand by while fish stocks within our territory continue to be depleted and our rights ignored.”

Elliott also sent a letter to B.C. fisheries sectoral groups, such as the Underwater Harvesters Association and the BC Shellfish Farmers.

“We understand that this [action] will create challenges for all parties, and we would like to firmly state that our fight is not with the commercial harvesters. Our fight is with the DFO alone, and our hope is to compel them to follow Canadian law when enacting new policy and change their existing policies surrounding aboriginal access accordingly.”

Ray Gauthier, CEO of Stz’uminus First Nation’s Coast Salish Development Corporation, says they have been trying to work with DFO for five years, particularly around geoduck harvesting.

“We’ve tried to work with them,” he said. “We don’t like sending out the kind of messages we sent out on Friday, but at the end of the day, we’re tired of being ignored.”

Like Elliott, Gauthier emphasizes that they aren’t taking this position because they want to hurt commercial fisheries — they’re doing this because they feel their community must take action.

“We’re concerned about safety,” said Gauthier. “It’s not like we like to do this. We don’t know what else to do. We’re frustrated … We know this is a David and Goliath thing, but if we don’t do anything, nothing’s going to happen.”

Fisheries and Ocean Minister Gail Shea issued a written statement in response to Elliott’s letter.

“Fisheries and Oceans Canada manages fisheries resources to allow for sustainable fishing opportunities,” it reads.

“Officials are engaged in ongoing discussions with the Stz’uminus to understand their concerns and interest. When needed, DFO and the RCMP work with fishermen and members of the First Nations to ensure the safety of everyone on the water.”

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