Patricia Kelly often fishes with friends and other community members, not only for fish to sell, but for social and ceremonial salmon as well. It’s a practice she refers to as communal fishing, something she worries is becoming rarer.

Late in the summer of 2013, Kelly went to the Yale First Nation in the Fraser Canyon to fish for sockeye at a fishing camp on the reserve. She and her friend Corky Douglas and his sons boated to the middle of the river and cast their gill nets, hoping to make a small profit by catching a net full of salmon.

Partway through the day, they took a break. As they pulled in to shore, they heard the sound of a truck driving down the gravel road. All of a sudden the engine stopped.

“That’s a DFO truck that just pulled up,” Corky said.

“You know what to do, Patricia,” Corky’s son Robin said, handing Kelly a drum.

So Kelly began drumming and singing a war song as she walked towards the unmarked car. She poked her head in a partially opened window to verify that it was a governmental vehicle. She found a DFO sign inside, then spotted the officers.

“I could see them walking on the railway tracks to the camp. They were sneaking up so they could watch us from the top to see what we’re doing.”

“I started drumming again and said, ‘You’re not welcome here. Go away! I already beat you guys. You already picked a fight with me and I won!’”

Kelly is not the only fisher to have experienced DFO’s clandestine tactics. When Stó:lō fishers were preparing their fish camps and traditional drying racks this past July, some said they spotted undercover fishery officers with binoculars watching their movements. They said the officers posed as buyers, likely to get the fishers to illegally sell them sockeye.

Ernie Victor, fisheries coordinator for the Stó:lō Nation and co-chair of the Lower Fraser Fisheries Alliance, was one of these fishers, and he was outraged. He says it’s common for fishery officers to pose as interested customers.

“The fisheries are the keystone to keeping our traditions alive. Anybody trying to live a traditional lifestyle is destined for hardship in Canadian society,” he says.

According to the First Nation Panel on Fisheries, there are more Aboriginal fishers than there are recreational or commercial fishers, but on the Fraser River they are allocated only about 15 per cent of the catch. The commercial sector working on the Fraser River brings in four times that much.

The same is true for other major salmon routes. For instance, a large salmon business like Canfisco, owned by Canadian multimillionaire Jim Pattison, is entitled to 80,000 fish per hour in tidal zones, depending on conservation goals, according to Victor.

Last year, Victor attended 15 social gatherings and spiritual ceremonies, but none of them served salmon because the fishers had so little access to the fishery. “We had chicken or pasta instead,” he sighs.

First Nations are not against conservation or efforts to build strong runs through fishery management, Victor adds. In fact, the Stó:lō want to help robust runs of salmon, not just conservative or even sustainable runs, reach the spawning grounds. But Victor is concerned about the measures taken to prevent Aboriginal fishers from accessing and profiting from their traditional foods.

DFO: Protecting the fish or policing Aboriginal culture?

A large proportion of DFO’s Pacific Region budget is allocated to a program called the Pacific Integrated Commercial Fisheries Initiative, which works to establish clearly defined shares in the salmon fishery for each of the user groups. Of that initiative, 50 per cent of funding is dedicated to monitoring and enforcement in Aboriginal fisheries during open times. Even more of the budget is spent monitoring fisheries during the closed times.

In one year there were 495 violations in the lower Fraser area, according to Herb Redekopp, DFO chief of conservation and protection. Two-fifths of those took place during closed times. Pacific Region fishery officers spent 38,000 hours monitoring fisheries, and nearly one-third of that monitoring was focused on Aboriginal fisheries. That’s almost as much as the time dedicated to monitoring recreational fishers and commercial fishers combined. One-third of the overall time was spent monitoring closed times.

“This is uncalled-for hardship,” Victor says, “There’s no appreciation for the distinct Aboriginal culture that’s been (in Canada) for 10,000, 15,000 years.”

As salmon stocks, especially sockeye, have drastically dwindled since 1992, fishery officers have intensified their monitoring and enforcement in fisheries.

In the Cohen Commission’s final report, an in-depth look at the sockeye salmon that migrate through the Fraser River, Justice Bruce Cohen recommended even more resources be allocated to monitoring Aboriginal fisheries.

“The Department of Fisheries and Oceans should ensure that all Fraser River sockeye salmon fisheries are monitored at an enhanced level,” Justice Cohen wrote. “To meet these objectives, DFO should [among other things] enforce penalties for non-compliance.”

Victor says Stó:lō fishing laws are the most important ones to obey. He thinks more enforcement will mean more battles on the Fraser.

Imposed laws on unconquered lands

Kelly says Stó:lō lands are “unceded, unsold, and unconquered.” Most communities haven’t made any treaty agreements with the federal government, and yet Aboriginal fisheries are regulated to a point that Aboriginal rights are violated, she says.

Ken Wilson was a catch-monitoring biologist for DFO and is critical of the department’s policies. He believes the amount of time and resources spent “hiding in the bushes” patrolling Aboriginal fisheries looking for “ bad guys” misses the point of why the fisheries are suffering.

“Racism is so heavily ingrained in (Canada’s) worldview that we don’t even notice. It’s probably worse for Aboriginal people than any other ethnic minority that I can think of in Canada.”

Wilson worked for DFO in the Pacific Region in the late 1990s. He left because he disagreed with the way the system works. He thinks that Canada’s relationship with First Nations needs a makeover from the top down.

“Our arrangement around fisheries is one small symptom around a deeply racist relationship with Aboriginal people,” he says.

He observes that politicians who set fishery policy theoretically uphold Aboriginal priority for food and social and ceremonial fish, but conservation concerns trump Aboriginal rights too often.

“It’s validating the myth we have that somehow ‘Indians’ are the problem. They go fishing whenever they want and they catch this, they catch that,” Wilson says.

In contrast, Redekopp claims that fishery officers “apply the law equitably regardless of race or sex.”

Fishery officers Doug Clift and Mike Fraser agree. Combined, they have nearly 40 years’ experience as fisheries officers. They say they’ve gotten to know the fishers in the area, and even know many of them by name. The officers have even attended some of the band fishery meetings.

“You’re not just dealing with people you don’t know. Anybody who spends any time dealing with some of these individuals, you can’t help but have some sort of compassion for where they’re coming from,” Fraser says.

Fraser says some of the poachers he’s come across have had drug and alcohol problems, and others live in poor conditions.

“They border on Third World country-type environments,” Fraser says.

Most fishers in these First Nations communities don’t consider fishing during closed times to be poaching because their ancestors fished freely for generations in accordance with Coast Salish laws. Their rights are enshrined in section 35 of the Constitution and have been upheld by various court rulings.

Victor says some fishers consider abiding by the fishing licenses to be participating in a system built on colonialism and dispossession of rights. Kelly is one such fisher, and she feels the failure to implement court decisions and expert recommendations further marginalizes her and other Aboriginal fishers.

“The Fisheries Act is a tool to criminalize me,” says Kelly.

After fighting tooth and nail for her fishing rights for so many years, she refuses to give up now.