‘Ron Sparrow fought for what he believed in — what was just and right’
Politicians and leaders from across the country are mourning the death of the Musqueam gillnetter who took the fight for Indigenous fishing rights to Canada’s highest court, winning a landmark ruling for First Nations.
In 1984, Ronald (Bud) Sparrow was charged by federal Fisheries officials for fishing for chinook in the Canoe Pass area of the Fraser River with a drift net nearly twice the length his licence allowed. Sparrow fought the charge, stating that he was exercising an existing Aboriginal right to fish and that the licence restriction was invalid.
He argued his case for the next six years, first losing in provincial court and then in the B.C. County Court, before winning appeals at both the B.C. Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court of Canada.
The highest court found First Nations take priority in access to B.C.’s salmon, after conservation measures have been taken. The victory established the so-called Sparrow test, which “determines whether a right is existing, and if so, how a government may be justified to infringe upon it,” as the University of B.C.’s Indigenous Foundations resource put it.
The ruling was a pillar court decision for First Nations and an integral component to many other decisions over the past three decades, said Robert Phillips of the First Nations Summit’s political executive.
“He unapologetically exercised and defended his title and rights, setting a precedent for not only First Nations in B.C., but Indigenous peoples around the globe to assert their inherent and unextinguishable rights,” said Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, the president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs.
Carolyn Bennett, the federal minister of Crown-Indigenous relations, said the Sparrow case affirmed Indigenous rights across the country and said his legacy was one of courage.
B.C. Premier John Horgan said he was saddened to learn of Sparrow’s death. “His courage and leadership led to an important, precedent-setting Supreme Court of Canada decision that advanced Indigenous rights,” Horgan said.
Regional Chief Terry Teegee of the Assembly of First Nationssaid the ruling’s importance cannot be overstated and that it ultimately grew into “a more substantial and much-litigated duty to consult.”
“We are grateful and guided by Ron Sparrow’s important legacy that forged a legal pathway in the fight for our rights. As a commercial fisherman himself, he was determined to have Aboriginal fishing rights recognized, affirmed and protected for himself, his culture and his people,” he said.
The Assembly of First Nations supported Sparrow as an intervener during the Supreme Court challenge. AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde said the loss of Sparrow would be grieved.
“His fight for First Nations rights made a mark and his legacy will live on forever,” Bellegarde said.
Supporting the federal government as interveners were the attorneys general of B.C., Ontario, Quebec, Saskatchewan, Alberta and Newfoundland, as well as 15 different fishing industry groups.
The case was the first major test of Aboriginal rights under Canada’s 1982 Constitution. Jody Wilson-Raybould, sn Independent MP and former minister of justice and attorney general, called it “arguably the seminal Aboriginal rights case in Canadian history.”
Santa Ono, president of UBC, which is on Musqueam traditional territory, called Sparrow a true champion of Indigenous rights and said the Sparrow case was “path-breaking in Canadian jurisprudence.”
The Musqueam band described Sparrow as a quiet, determined and proud member.
“As a skilled and accomplished commercial fisher, he travelled up and down the west coast of B.C. to provide for his family and community,” said a Musqueam statement on his death.
“Bud left our people at Musqueam and Indigenous peoples across Canada with a tremendous legal legacy. We will always be grateful for his quiet determination in fighting for our rights,” said Musqueam Chief Wayne Sparrow.
Just under a decade ago, Sparrow received a National Aboriginal Achievement Award. He told The Vancouver Sun then that his appeal never would have happened without backing from the Musqueam. Of his fight, he said “I wanted to make sure natives could harvest the fish, not just for our generation but all the descendants in the future.”
Sparrow died at his home on the Musqueam reserve in South Vancouver late Monday. He was in his mid seventies. A cause of death was not announced. His service will be limited to family members due to COVID-19 restrictions, according to the First Nations Leadership Council.
Courtesy of Vancouver Sun