To protect the herring population on Canada's Pacific Coast and gain greater decision-making power in fisheries governance, Heiltsuk women led a series of protests against the Department of Fisheries and Oceans following the contested reopening of a depleting herring fisheries.
Problems and Purpose
Access to and control of natural resources for Indigenous peoples extend beyond the ecological, encompassing issues of social, cultural, and economic inequality given the direct relationship between their livelihood and the natural environment . Negotiations between the Canadian government and Indigenous peoples concerning fishing rights are ongoing efforts with significant strides but unequal power dynamics. Since the proliferation of a global market for herring spawn deposited on kelp, the Canadian government-imposed policies and regulations that limit the Heiltsuk community's access to herring markets and fisheries through a commercial license system.
While Herring provides a great economic opportunity for the Heiltsuk community, they also have a great social and cultural significance which makes access imperative . The sociocultural significance was significant in a supreme court ruling delegating looser regulations that allowed Heiltsuk community members greater access as well as greater involvement in fisheries decision-making processes. However, in 2008 a sac-roe and spawn on kelp fisheries closed due to low levels of herring on the Central Coast. In 2014, the DFO reopened commercial herring fisheries despite the recommendations of Indigenous communities including the Heiltsuk peoples threatening the herring population and the Heiltsuk community's social, cultural, and economic life . This reopening also undermined the Heiltsuk decision to suspend their own fisheries activity to let the herring populations recover demonstrating a disconnect between the community and the DFO in managing the fisheries resource. These tensions ultimately led to the herring crises and conflict of 2015.
Background History and Context
Indigenous groups began negotiating fishing rights in the late 1800s as the provincial and federal colonial government began implementing regulations that limited Indigenous communities' access to fisheries resources and economies . Herring has long been a source of food, trade, and livelihood for the Heiltsuk communities among a range of Northwest Coast Indigenous peoples. In the 1970s, a commercial overseas market developed for herring spawn deposited on giant kelp hung in closed ponds which led to state-imposed regulations and limitations policies. Before these regulations, Herring was the only commercial fishery where Indian Bands and community members possessed the majority of licenses issued . The Heiltsuk band held only a single community license when they attempted to negotiate greater access to the commercial spawn on kelp fisheries industry in the 1980s . However, the federal fisheries agency refused to issue additional licenses . The band would eventually file a lawsuit against the fisheries department for five licenses- citing an Aboriginal right. However, the case was dismissed by federal courts as the government had promised to issue additional licenses through a scheme that would fail in its implementation .
Failed attempts by the federal government to issue the band more licenses resulted in two Heiltsuk band members being charged for selling herring spawn-on-kelp without the appropriate license . This case was resolved in the Supreme Courts of Canada, with the courts reaffirming the constitutional rights of the Heiltsuk people to harvest spawn-on-kelp for commercial use. This decision was significant regarding the recognition of Indigenous fishing rights and increasing access and participation in SOK commercial fisheries. However, federal fisheries governance continued to neglect First Nations communities such as the Heiltsuk Band in the fisheries decision-making process despite the cited court-ordered directions .
On the Central Coast, a significant decline of herrings led to the closure of the commercial sac-roe and SOK fisheries from 2008 to 2013. First Nations community recommended that the fishery remain closed for stocks to rebuild, however, despite these recommendations, commercial herring fisheries were reopened the subsequent year . In response, the Heiltsuk Band and other First Nations led a series of protests and litigations in 2014 and 2015. Still, the DFO reopened commercial fishing in 2015 undermining the Heiltsuk decision-making power in natural resource management as cited by the supreme court.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
The Heiltsuk community was at the center of the protests and demonstrations. However, community members involved in the movement recalled that the Heiltsuk women were the ones coordinating, providing logistical support, and mobilizing people and resources across various peoples and networks in the movement .
Participant Recruitment and Selection
There were no explicit participation criteria for the protests. Heiltsuk Men, women, and youths all participated. Heiltsuk women leveraged their informal networks through social media and mobile phones to stay connected with each other, and engage the public in support of their struggle . Women also leveraged their roles as teachers, and transmitters of culture to recruit Heiltsuk youths.
Methods and Tools Used
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
During the herring conflict, two Heiltsuk women acted on the waters and initiated a standoff with a commercial seine boat . Shortly after, community elders, women, and youth pleaded with DFO officers at the federal fisheries agency in Bella Bella to not resume commercial fishing on the Central Coast . Within hours, more than a dozen community members occupied the DFO office determined to remain onsite until the herring fishery is closed. That same night elected chief Marilyn Slett locked herself inside the DFO office . Elders, women, children, elected and hereditary chiefs issued an eviction notice to the department while also giving the government until the following day (Monday) at 9 am to tell fishing vessels not to drop their nets and anchors . The occupation of the DFO office in Bella Bella lasted for four days.
While tension increase at Bella Bella, Heiltsuk women led demonstrations at government offices in Vancouver, coordinating and connecting through social media. Louisa Housty worked closely with Heiltsuk Integrated Resource Management Department and with the elected Chief and Council acted as the headquarters of communication in Bella Bella. According to participants, the Heiltsuk women coordinated protest-related logistics such as transportation, food, a safety plan, and generating public support for their struggle via informal networks on social media . As these efforts simultaneously took place and tensions intensified at government officed in Vancouver, Chief Marilyn Slett reaffirmed their commitment to peaceful protest to members on the front line.
Women in the community utilized their roles as teachers and transmitters of culture by teaching Heiltsuk youths the ‘herring song’ to diffuse tension and build a common vision . Fran Brown, the language and culture coordinator, taught elementary school children the “wanai song” which was sung during protests in the Heiltsuk language . According to participants, the song provided support and strength to those directly engaged in negotiations with the state. Specifically, the collective voice the song allowed for produced the momentum needed to shift from crises and conflict to cooperative conversations with federal fisheries managers about changes that would ensure Heiltsuk's sustained relationship with herring .
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
The Heiltsuk’s political actions led to negotiations with the federal fisheries department to develop new herring co-management plans subsequently adopted in 2016. The agreement included four key changes :
- The DFO revived a previously used method of herring stock forecast that Heiltsuk peoples believe is more accurate.
- Harvest rate reduced from 10% to 7%
- The closing of the sac roe fishery in Spiller Channel- an important herring spawning ground.
- A Heiltsuk observer will be on all fishery boats during the herring harvest in acknowledgment of the Nation’s right to environmental stewardship.
By 2017, the province of British Columbia and the Heiltsuk Nation agreed upon a framework for reconciliation that would allow for more power-sharing in fisheries governance.
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