Fishing Rights Are Inherent Rights...
An interview with June Quipp of the Cheam Nation
By Aaron Mercredi
On August 21st, June Quipp, former Chief of the Cheam nation and long-time activist for indigenous rights, sent an appeal to activists and independent media. She was seeking help to get a straight story out about recent events that have been taking place within her territory on the waters of the Fraser River. Throughout the summer, while Cheam fishers dropped their nets, the waters were heating up with conflict between the fishers and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and recreational fishermen over their rights to harvest from the fresh water. In all of the major newspapers, a smear campaign was re-ignited to fuel non-indigenous people's fear and misconceptions about native people asserting their rights.
History of Colonialism vs. Indigenous Fisheries in BC
Like the rest of Canada, the battle over the waters in BC is nothing new. It is the same colonial song that has been playing since indigenous people first encountered European settlers, only sung at a higher key. When British Columbia joined the Dominion of Canada in 1871, settlers initially relied heavily on a trade relationship with indigenous people and their fishery. The Hudson's Bay Company even purchased fish from indigenous people for food, as there were not many non-indigenous people fishing at that time. Contrary to popular belief, the fisheries themselves were not lawless and careless when it came to conservation, but were governed by an intricate web of entitlements, prohibitions and sanctions, allowing certain activities and banning others. Many indigenous nations used a weir fishery, which ran by a sophisticated harvesting technology, allowing them to select which salmon they would harvest and which salmon would be left to continue on their spawning journey. However, as the settler population grew and colonialism strengthened across the country, colonial laws displaced the complex fishery system that had already existed. Of course, the government of Canada denied the legitimacy, and in some cases, even the existence of these fisheries and of their systems of management and resource allocation in order to justify imposing new laws on indigenous people. This method of subplanting indigenous laws and values with colonial rule was not limited to the fisheries. In 1884, the government banned the potlach, strengthening its hegemony over native land by weakening important native legal and trading spaces, thereby allowing more settler access to land governed by indigenous people. This law, undermining indigenous peoples way of living, relating to one another, and governing, was meant to crush indigenous people's culture and traditional economy, and push them into the new market economy and wage labour created by the Canadian state.
Canneries were established along the West Coast in the late 1800's to export sockeye salmon and with their high demand of raw resources, there was now profit to be made off of fishing. These canneries created competition for salmon, and as a result, the colonial government was dead set on destroying indigenous fisheries, and laws were brought against indigenous people's rights to gather fish for food or for profit. In 1884, under the Dominion government, indigenous people were required to seek permission from the colonial government to fish for their own food, and by 1888, Indigenous people could not sell fish without a license. This first attack by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) of using conservation to restrict indigenous fisheries began a long legacy of keeping tabs on what indigenous people were taking out of the waters.
With the enforcement of new colonial laws, some indigenous people adapted and returned to fishing, while others consciously resisted the new laws. The Saanich people took their reef net fishery outside of DFO jurisdiction, to the San Juan Islands which remained within their traditional territory. The Cowichan and Ned'u'ten people fought against the removal of their fishing weirs, directly resisting and using legal forums to gain support from non-indigenous people. The new colonial laws set the conflicts in motion between the survival of indigenous people and their access to their resources, against the economic prosperity of colonial Canada off of these same resources.
2005 and colonialism is alive and well in BC…
The Pilalt of the Cheam First Nation have a reputation of continuing to live their traditional way of life in the face of colonial oppression. This reputation comes from the times they have blockaded the CN Rail line (which illegally runs through their territory) where they set up in response to developments on their mountains and attacks on their people. It also comes from the fact that they are still out on the waters of the Fraser River harvesting fish within their traditional territory, despite the intimidation, unlawful arrests and other oppressive tactics used by the DFO and RCMP to suppress the Cheam fishers. In 1999, DFO's aggression led to support coming in to the community from indigenous activists throughout the province. The Native Youth Movement security force went to defend the Cheam fishers, and the West Coast Warrior Society was formed out of that struggle. In the years since, tensions over the waters have remained, with different community members arrested, their equipment confiscated; all the while keeping up the intimidation and attempt to suppress Cheam people's right to fish. It has become part of their way of life to spend the summers fishing and dealing with the DFO, and the winters in court, fighting for recognition of their rights to fish. Along with this, smear campaigns were also used to demonize their just fight. In an article in the Globe and Mail on July 25th 2003, Bill Otway, who is a former DFO sports fishing advisor and current president of the Sport Fishing Defense Alliance, called on the Canadian government to send the military in to 'maintain the peace' on the Fraser, saying 'these people have an armed camp in there.'
This summer saw the same escalation of tensions as Cheam people harvested fish from the waters. As the DFO opened and closed commercial, recreational and native fisheries, frustration was felt and the blame game was being played. The most common victim of these games is indigenous people who exercise their inherent right to fish on their waters. In the Vancouver Sun and the Province, there were reports on incidents with natives on the Fraser River taking too many fish, while reports from within the community showed increased aggression by the DFO against Cheam people. We had the opportunity to discuss the recent developments in Cheam with June Quipp. Please read the interview in the special box in this page.
Interview with June Quipp
Fire This Time: Can you tell us a little bit about what's been going on in Cheam for the past couple of weeks?
June Quipp: Well, actually, it has been more than a couple of weeks. I think something has to be done about the way the DFO has really been racial profiling our community, our people and you know, getting away with it. One of the things they are doing is putting out all this media hype, while what they are doing is really aggressively going after our people, charging them with their boats. Their boats are about twice the size of our boats. And what they do is they'll go right at high speed against us. They try to push our boats and try to ram them. One of the young boys, they tried to pull him out of the boat while he was still operating the boat. I mean, all of this is real, and in my mind really negligent. They're acting in quite a dangerous and negligent manner.
FTT: Were these attacks made on people while they were trying to fish on the waters?
JQ: Sometimes they're not even fishing. A lot of times they'll watch them fish, or let them finish fishing and then they'll go after them. Sometimes it's during regular opens. It's a real hey-day for the officers. You know, they get to go out and practice being the bullies they are. I think they have to take that kind of job for some reason. It's not a regular job, you know. The type of thing where one holds a bit of power. It has something to do with their egos, I think. But they are being very aggressive. They have always been aggressive and they've always gotten away with it. What they do is get very aggressive, somebody comes to help their partner and they end up getting charged with assault. It doesn't matter that the DFO has been doing the same thing they are accusing our people of doing.
FTT: There's a long history of DFO aggression against indigenous people, whether it is just the history in Cheam, with attacking people on the waters there or going to Burnt Church where they were attacking the Miqmaq. Are these new attacks that they are making any different?
JQ: Actually, no they're not. One of the things, and I'm not sure if it happened in Burnt Church, but they've got all this media hype out there about how the Cheam band is the only one that is not complying with rules and regulations, and how Cheam band is the only one not doing this and not doing that. But you know what? Cheam band is the only band that the DFO even monitors. They don't go anywhere else. They don't monitor the sports fishermen. So, how do they know we're the only ones who are not complying? So that really, really upsets me. Because, you know, they can go out there and say 'yeah, these are all the charges and this proves that they're the only ones not in compliance with the rules and regulations,' but that is not the case. The real case is that we're the only ones that they monitor, we're the only ones that they harass, and we're the only ones that they even bother to check up on.
FTT: Has there been involvement from any other arms of the Canadian government in this recent struggle, like the RCMP?
JQ: There's been a bit, but what's happened though, the one night they did call in the RCMP to make some arrests. They do call for RCMP backup, but I know when I see the cop cars there, we had several meetings and they agreed that they were there to keep the peace.
FTT: And how has the media attention that Cheam band has received affected things within the community?
JQ: Well, I'm not sure how it's affecting things within the community, but I know how it is going to affect things. You know, if they want to come in and shoot somebody, and they'll have all this media hype already out to the public and have people think, well, 'they've been asking for it and they got it.' So, I think what they're doing is just getting all this media hype out there leading up to some kind of an incident they may be planning. Maybe they're planning on capsizing one of our boats. Maybe they are planning on shooting somebody. Maybe they're planning on, you know, who knows what? But they'll already have all the coverage there to have the public believe that we had it coming.
FTT: So what's next, for you, for people going out on the waters? Are there plans to continue fishing?
JQ: I think, when our people go out fishing, they do make plans to have somebody there to help them for when the DFO comes along. It's not even just during the closed times that they're doing it. It's during their regular openings that the DFO is acting like that. Amongst the fishers, they are sort of helping one another.
FTT: Thanks a lot for the interview June.
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