On April 2, the Heiltsuk First Nation, located on BC’s central west coast, scored a huge victory over the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) and billionaire Jimmy Pattison. Through a series of militant actions, the Nation and its allies forced DFO to back off its plans to open the herring fishery in a sensitive area in the Nation’s territory.
What follows is a description of how to win, plus an exclusive interview with long-time Heiltsuk activist Mary Vickers.
Ignoring the demands of the Heiltsuk First Nation, and without any consultation, DFO opened the commercial herring-roe seine fishery on March 22. The Heiltsuk people have survived off herring fish for millennia and also made a living selling herring-roe to Japanese markets in more recent years. But commercial (as opposed to indigenous, traditional) over-fishing has taken its toll and the Heiltsuk Nation has called for a ban on herring fisheries this year in what is known as Area 7. Herring fisheries had already been closed in two other contested regions this year after neighbouring First Nations obtained injunctions.
“We must put conservation first. We have voluntarily suspended our community-owned commercial gillnet herring licenses for this season to allow stocks to rebuild, but DFO and industry are unwilling to follow suit,” said Kelly Brown, director of the Heiltsuk Integrated Resource Management Department.
“We have exhausted all means of negotiation with DFO,” stated Chief Councillor Marilyn Slett. “Our herring is our future, and we must protect it by whatever means necessary.”
Greg Thomas, the chair of the Herring Industry Advisory Board, said there are plenty of fish. But the Heiltsuk claim herring stocks are on the verge of collapse. "We don't trust the DFO science. It's very industry driven," said Carrie Humchitt, a former legal adviser for the Heiltsuk and a logistics coordinator for the spawn on kelp fishery with the First Nation's Gladstone Reconciliation Society.
When DFO would not listen to the cautions and demands issued by the Heiltsuk, community members took direct action to defend herring stocks. They took their boats into their traditional waters to block entry by commercial fishers.
That’s where Indigenous fishermen lower their traditional roe-on-kelp lines, to harvest millions of tiny herring eggs, but not kill the adult herring fish, which are then free to reproduce for up to six years. But commercial fishing vessels have already scooped up several hundred tonnes of herring when the seine boat catch was reopened for less than 12 hours on March 22.
In an open letter to Jim Pattison, owner of the Canadian Fishing Company, the Heiltsuk wrote, “The Heiltsuk Nation owns two gillnet licenses, but we will not be leasing them this year due to conservation concerns. In a community with high unemployment such as ours, this decision was not taken lightly. It is a sacrifice we must make now in order to safeguard for our future.”
Both Chief Slett and Kelly Brown locked themselves in the DFO office on nearby Denny Island.
The Heiltsuk people received strong support from a variety of sources. There were been statements of solidarity from the neighbouring Kitasoo/Xaixais Nation, the Council of the Haida Nation, Coastal First Nations, Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council, and the Union of BC Indian Chiefs.
Heiltsuk leadership also noted solidarity from the labour movement: “We appreciate the leadership and understanding of the situation that the United Fisherman and Allied Workers’ Union – Unifor has shown by its recommendation to its members not to select the Central Coast as an area to fish herring this year, as outlined in an open letter to the Council of the Haida Nation, the Heiltsuk Tribal Council and BC commercial herring fishermen dated January 20, 2015.”
And solidarity has also seen unity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in the streets of Vancouver and Victoria.
In Victoria, protesters held a rally outside Save-On-Foods, a supermarket chained owned by billionaire Jim Pattison. His Canadian Fishing Company, or Canfisco, holds a large number of herring licenses. On top of ignoring Indigenous calls for sustainability, Pattison routinely exploits the commercial fishers themselves by paying the lowest possible amount for their catch.
Fifty protesters occupied the busy downtown intersection outside DFO’s Vancouver office and four activists temporarily locked themselves down in the office itself. Protesters have also been active around the local Canfisco plant.
As NDP MP Nathan Cullen noted, “The Heiltsuk have repeatedly stated they will not consent to herring test or commercial fisheries because their traditional knowledge and scientific data show the area cannot sustain both traditional and commercial fisheries. The law is very clear that Aboriginal harvesting rights must take priority over non-Aboriginal interests when conservation concerns exist.”
“I stand in solidarity with the people from the Heiltsuk Nation, who have continually fought to defend herring stocks they have harvested for countless generations,” said Elizabeth May, Leader of the Green Party of Canada.
Tory Fisheries Minister Gail Shea claimed that “openings are based on science and do follow the cautionary approach,” which would be a first for the Tories, given their devotion to all extraction industries—whether under the ground (oil), on the ground (forests) or underwater (fisheries).
Pacific Wild founder and wildlife photographer Ian McAllister speculated as to why the federal government might be aggressively pushing the re-opening of the herring trade.
"It may have something to do with pipeline politics. This government is testing the mettle of coastal communities. It’s hard to imagine the long history of peaceful demonstration that the Heiltsuk have conducted, why they think they are just going to turn this into something, bigger," he said last week.
Interview with Heiltsuk member Mary Vickers, a long-time environmental activist, currently living in Victoria
What are your thoughts on DFO’s actions?
I am happy and surprised they backed down so quickly. Just the other day, the regional DFO person said she didn’t have the authority to shut down the fishery. And our Chief replied, “Well if you don’t have the authority, we do.”
What did it take to win?
It was nice to see our own young people step up. About 80 people camped out at Denny Island. Our boats are out. Other First Nations are supporting us and planning actions. Things got hostile at Save-On in Victoria, with shoppers pushing their way in when we shut down the parking lot for an hour.
But there has been lots of solidarity. In the past 10 years, I’ve seen the change, of the coming together of native and non-native people in a more healing way, like reconciliation. This generation has really taken a turn and is really good medicine right now. I’m very proud of this new generation. They’ve really stepped up. Times are changing. We didn’t expect to see this. We didn’t expect Idle No More, and it happened. It’s good.
For sure this has been a victory, but every year we have had to force the issue with DFO. We need a long-term commitment from them to respect our views, our territory.