Continued DFO Failure to Protect Herring and Aboriginal Rights

This past March, Gwa’sala- ‘Nakwaxda’xw Nation (“GNN”) sought an injunction to stop the Department of Fisheries  and Oceans (“DFO”) from granting a commercial herring spawn on kelp licence in their  traditional territories. That injunction failed because the Court felt there was not  sufficient information about GNN sufficient traditional knowledge to overturn DFO’s  decision.  

The First Nation’s Elders told GNN and DFO that there would not be a strong herring  run and, for the third year in a row, the Nation decided it had to refrain from fishing its  own herring licence on the basis of conservation needs. The 2021 annual survey by  fisheries experts, released in late October, has supported what the Elders and GNN’s  traditional knowledge were telling everyone – that this year’s returns were extremely low  and could not support a single commercial fishery. 

Chief Paddy Walkus pointed out: “When we are faced with endangered stocks, we have  to buy our traditional foods from neighboring First Nations in order to protect our own  resources.” 

Instead of working with GNN on meeting Canada’s reconciliation promises, DFO fought  the injunction tooth and nail so it could cling to decision-making power and continue to  unilaterally make decisions respecting marine resources in GNN traditional territories. 

“DFO ignores our input and concerns,” noted Chief Paddy Walkus. “Once again,  Western science experts have verified the accuracy of our traditional knowledge – the  herring were simply not there. And once again, as they have with every other marine  species we depend on, DFO has prioritized commercial fisheries over our Aboriginal  rights and conservation needs.” 

GNN traditional territories include the areas in and around Smith and Seymour Inlets where they have 24 established reserves and many other traditional village sites,  intensive use areas, and fishing locations. GNN members were forcibly moved to Port  Hardy by Indian Affairs in the 1960s, away from their traditional village sites, and their  homes, bighouses, and cultural regalia were burned by the government. Members  continue to depend for food and income on the resources of the lands and waters of  their traditional homelands.

“Our people have been fishing in these waters for thousands of years,” stated Chief  Walkus. “DFO is supposed to give our rights priority. Our people need an economic  base and access to a healthy diet to thrive – the sea is both of these things for us. We  rely on herring, salmon, halibut, shellfish, seaweed – and a long list of other resources – 

for our health, our well-being, the education of our children. DFO seems more interested  in overseeing the decline and extinction of our livelihood and our culture than in  honouring Canada’s Constitution or UNDRIP.” 

For Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw peoples, the month of March was named after herring.  Herring were traded with neighboring First Nations for eulachan grease and other diet  mainstays and it continues to be a staple of the traditional economy. 

Chief Walkus added: “The Federal government pays a lot of lip service to rights  recognition and reconciliation, while DFO gives away our resources and mismanages the entire range of marine species. DFO appears to be seeking confrontation over  reconciliation – either in the courts or on the water.”