The recent images and video footage out of Nova Scotia showing non-Indigenous fishermen protesting against Indigenous fisherman — yelling racial slurs and damaging property — look all too familiar to Sumas First Nation elder Lester Ned.
But Ned’s mind takes him further back than the recent protests against Mi’kmaq lobster fisherman in the maritime province. Instead, he’s thinking about 1992, when British Columbia commercial fishermen protested against Indigenous fishermen after new fisheries sales agreements were introduced.
Indigenous fishermen from three First Nations groups in B.C. established their own limited economic opportunity fisheries in 1992. But commercial fishermen opposed the move, and protests often got heated and racial. Nearly three decades later, the racism remains.
“I think [the protests against Mi’kmaq fisherman] is Sto:lo repeating itself all over again,” Ned says. “You look at that, and it’s history repeating itself.”
The summer of ’92
In 1992, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans established pilot economic opportunity fisheries agreements with Sto:lo, Nuu-chah-nulth and Skeena River First Nations. The agreements were in response to court decisions that affirmed an Indigenous right to fish under Section 35 of the Constitution.
Commercial fishing interests protested the agreements, saying they established a separate commercial fishery based on race, and that there should be one law for all. Ned recalls that protests were held, traffic was blocked in downtown Vancouver, and a court case was launched against the new sales program.
The Sumas were part of a group of Fraser River First Nations that signed an economic opportunity agreement with fisheries and oceans. Ned recalls as soon as they started fishing, the protests by non-Indigenous fishermen became more personal.
“Every day there were guys swearing around, calling us f-ing Indians, buckskins and tomahawks, telling us to go back to the reserve,” he says. “A lot of businesses at that time even stopped selling fishing gear to us.”
Half million missing fish
In 1992, approximately half a million salmon were reported not to have made it to their spawning grounds after entering the Fraser River. Over-fishing by Indigenous fishermen was to blame, commercial interests said, and an official federal inquiry was launched.
Simultaneously, the then Lower Fraser Fishing Authority, which represented Fraser River First Nations, launched their own investigation led by journalist Terry Glavin, who took a leave from the Vancouver Sun during the investigation.
Glavin came to a similar conclusion as the federal inquiry.
“When you factored in all the various catches, mortality from water temperatures and low water levels and miscounts on the spawning grounds by a couple of per cent, all the fish are accounted for,” he said in a recent interview.
The Tseshaht First Nation is one of two Nuu-chah-nulth tribes that were signatories to an economic opportunity fishery agreement in 1992.
Tseshaht member Luke George was serving in the Canadian Armed Forces, but returned home briefly to fish with his brother in the Somass River under the new agreement. George said that every time he fished, he noticed non-Indigenous people stop their cars, get out and hurl racial slurs at him while he was on the river.
Once, he took his six-year-old nephew out to teach him how to fish. Not even the presence of the child stopped people from hurling racist comments at him from the roadside.
“My nephew asked me why they do that to us and I said they don’t understand our fishery,” he says. “[He] was in the boat and he had to see that, and he was only six years old.”
George says he doesn’t see as much open racism toward Indigenous fishermen as he did 28 years ago. But what once involved yelling and verbal insults has been replaced with racism on social media.
“You can see the anger and the hatred when an Indian sells their fish on Facebook after it was legally caught,” he says.