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First Nations band near Chilliwack files 'landmark' legal action against Canada, B.C.

Members of the Sts
Members of the Sts'ailes First Nation fish for salmon using nets in the Harrison River basin.
— image credit: Submitted

A local First Nations band announced Wednesday what it calls "a landmark legal action" in the Supreme Court of British Columbia against the governments of Canada and B.C. seeking to confirm control of its fishing rights in the area.

The Sts'ailes (formerly Chehalis) launched the suit over aboriginal rights and title in the Harrison-Chehalis watershed in response to fisheries act charges against a former chief and fisheries manager.

A decision in the case against former Sts'ailes chief Willie Charlie and fisheries manager Kim Charlie is scheduled to be handed down in Chilliwack provincial court on Aug. 29. Each face one count of obstructing a main channel under the fisheries act.

Those charges arose during fisheries on the Harrison River in 2012, and the first phase of the trial started in June of this year.

"In response and as a defence to the fishery charges, Sts’ailes has started its own legal action against Canada and the Province seeking to solidify its inherent title, rights and responsibilities to govern and manage the Harrison-Chehalis terminal fishery for the benefit of its present and future generations," the band said in a media statement issued Wednesday.

The band formally announced the legal action at a "celebration" at Sts'ailes Main Beach Wednesday morning.

Chief Harvey Paul said the Sts'ailes has protected the fishery in the area for countless generations with no depletion of returning stocks.

"It was not until [Fisheries and Oceans Canada] took over the management of the fish that the salmon seem to have run into problems," Paul said. "Over the past two generations, our people remember the churning of the water in the sloughs due to the abundance of fish that used to return every year. Now there is barely enough to maintain the stocks of returning fish to spawn.”

The band's aboriginal title and rights manager Boyd Peters added that the Sts'ailes has governed the territory "since time immemorial" under traditional laws.

"This landmark case will enable us to emphasize our historic and ongoing goal of sustainability for the land, fisheries and water within our rich territory,” Peters said.

One aboriginal source close to the matters says the Sts'ailes lawsuit could be contentious even between and among First Nations as, for example, the Scowlitz First Nation reserve is located right at the mouth of the Harrison River.

The announcement of the legal action comes as controversy and tension has arisen in the Fraser River among sports anglers and First Nations bands. The Pacific Salmon Commission released the first official in-season run size prediction for sockeye on Aug. 19, and the return is slated to the be smallest in the past century.

Even those fish that do return are arriving to low water levels and potentially lethally high temperatures.

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