Nuu-chah-nulth nations
A T’aaq-wiihak fisher and his grandson fish for Chinook salmon in Tofino, B.C. T’aaq-wiihak refers to fishing with permission of the Ha’wiih (hereditary chiefs). Photo by Melody Charlie

Nuu-chah-nulth leaders celebrate legal victory for commercial fishing rights

B.C. Court of Appeal ruling affirms unlimited rights for Ahousaht, Hesquiaht, Mowachaht/Muchalaht, Tla-o-qui-aht, and Ehattesaht/Chinehkint First Nations on the west Coast of Vancouver Island
Apr 20, 2021

Nuu-chah-nulth nations on the west coast of Vancouver Island are celebrating a B.C. Court of Appeal decision that affirms their rights to an unlimited commercial fishery on their own lands.

The unanimous ruling, delivered Monday, is the latest development in a a string of legal proceedings between the Ahousaht, Hesquiaht, Mowachaht/Muchalaht, Tla-o-qui-aht, and Ehattesaht/Chinehkint First Nations and Canada.

The decision upholds parts of a 2018 B.C. Supreme Court ruling that found Canada has infringed on the five nations’ rights to harvest and sell fish. It also removes limitations placed during that lower court ruling around the scale of the fisheries – including what size and type of vessels can be used.

Shortly after the latest ruling was released, Nuu-chah-nulth leaders and others involved in the case spoke to the media during a press conference on Zoom.

Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council president Judith Sayers and others are now calling on the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) to negotiate with Nuu-chah-nulth nations to enact a commercial fishery on their lands.

“The court recognized that there could be no limit on the commercial right to fish and in fact these five nations have a priority over the commercial and recreational fisheries,” Sayers says.

“It’s time for us to take our place in the fishing industry.”

The Nuu-chah-nulth nations have been seeking to exercise their right to sell various species of fish in their territories for many years. The cases date back to 2009, when the B.C. Supreme Court first declared the nations’ constitutional rights to harvest and sell all species of fish in their territories.

Since that ruling, the nations and Canada have gone back and forth on various legal actions and failed consultations around how those rights can be exercised. In the meantime, the communities have not been able to properly exercise their commercial fishing rights, according to a press release from Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council.

Wickaninnish (Cliff Atleo) plays the drum while singing the Nuu-chah-nulth song on the court steps in Vancouver in April of 2018. Photo by Melody Charlie

“For many years, they have been limited to a very small fishery and this has not been acceptable as fishing is a way of life for them,” the release states.

“Now, the Court of Appeal has agreed with them, and we are urging Fisheries and Oceans Canada to act immediately in implementing the court ruling.”

The initial appeal hearing took place in February of 2019, meaning the nations have been waiting more than two years for this ruling.

Courtenay-Alberni NDP MP Gord Johns says he calls on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and federal Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan to embrace the ruling.

“Canada should take up this opportunity, as outlined in the appeal court decision, to negotiate sufficient allocations and fishing opportunities that will support the nations’ fishing culture and their economy,” he says.

“It’s well past the time for Canada to negotiate in good faith with the five nations.”

Wickaninnish (Cliff Atleo), the lead negotiator for Ahousaht First Nation, says the negotiation has been a long time coming. He says the nations shouldn’t have to spend millions of dollars fighting the government in court just to have their inherent right recognized.

“You know, I grew up when our communities were totally self-sustaining. I remember that. There was no government housing program, there was no welfare, we didn’t know what those things were because we were able to look after ourselves through a way of life that included a lot of fishing,” he says.

“You can’t help but feel a little bit of emotion given [this] decision. You can’t help but feel a little bit of excitement.”