Two Vancouver Island First Nations’ chiefs broke their silence this week, saying the federal Discovery Islands fish farm process was filled with missed opportunities.
Campbell River area Wei Wai Kum and We Wai Kai were among seven First Nations that federal Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan consulted prior to her decision to phase out 19 Discovery Islands fish farms by 2022.
But the chiefs said that even though the decision aligned with the sentiment of their communities in favour of removing open-pen farms from the ocean, the process was hollow.
Chief Chris Roberts of Wei Wai Kum First Nation said they were given inadequate time to have a “pragmatic dialogue” with Jordan and were dissatisfied with the way the process was conducted.
The First Nations were left with no alternatives, nor were they given the opportunity to arrive at an autonomous decision through the principles of United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). Instead they were left ‘wearing the decision’ the federal government made for them.
Roberts said he is not a proponent/supporter of the aquaculture industry and shares the serious concerns of his community about the impact of open-pen fish farming in its traditional territory.
“I’m not trying to give false hopes to the industry that we might have arrived at some sort of permission for them to stay, but it certainly could have been done in a way that was not so abrupt.”
But as an elected chief with a background in economics and privy to understanding the full picture of the economic consequences of decisions, Roberts said there are several missed opportunities for everyone involved.
And according to him, no one is off the hook for the consequences of this decision – the federal and provincial government and aquaculture industry included.
Former We Wai Kai chief Brian Assu said they were “railroaded” by the federal government’s decision, in a virtual Q & A meeting with MLA Michele Babchuk.
“We literally had 30 minutes between We Wai Kai and Wei Wai Kum to consult with the minister and out of that, 15 minutes of it basically was telling us that she was going to announce her decision,” said Assu.
“When I say we got railroaded, I really truly mean that… That’s our traditional territory and the (federal) government decided to base their decision on all external parties to us – including other First Nations. It was a mess,” said Assu.
The actual site of the fish farms comes under core Laichwiltach territory (We Wai Kai, Wei Wai Kum and Kwaikah) and overlaps with four other First Nations (Tla’amin, Klahoose, Homalco, K’ómoks). But apart from these Nations, there were other commentators brought in to the discussion, said Roberts.
Lumping a broader regional group of First Nations into the process was unnecessary, as it interfered with the autonomy of the title-holding Nations in their jurisdiction, according to Roberts.
He is also disappointed with the process because all the rhetoric of reconciliation and commitment to UNDRIP were nothing more than “window dressings.” According to him, the government did not get reconciliation right as it was not a “genuine consultation process” and they weren’t afforded the opportunity to arrive at a decision on their own terms.
“If they’re going to recognize us as title holders in these areas, and it’s going to be our decision, then let’s establish the process that helps us arrive at a decision in a responsible way.”
Instead of a shared decision making process or a consent-based model, it was the same old consult – where the minister hears your concerns (and Roberts gives Jordan the due recognition for listening to the concerns from the First Nations’ perspective) but still has the ultimate decision making power, he said.
“So even though it appears that the minister got it right this time, the risk is that nothing will change,” said Roberts with regards to future consultations.
He feels that Jordan’s decision was more of a political move to meet Prime Minister Trudeau’s 2019 election mandate that promised to remove open-pens from B.C.’s waters by 2025.
When asked about the First Nations’ dissatisfaction with the consultation process, Jordan’s office told the Mirror that prior to the decision to phase out the first farms in the Discovery Islands, the minster met directly with First Nations in the Discovery Islands, and “every effort” was made to have meaningful consultation.
“Our relationship with these Indigenous communities is extremely important, and we will continue to work closely with them to ensure they have a say in the economic activity that occurs on their territory,” said Jordan in the statement.
The federal decision has been met with criticism from the industry and political leaders who have repeatedly pointed out the economic repercussions and jobs lost through this process.
Last week, B.C. Premier John Horgan criticized the federal government’s handling of the Discovery Islands consultation process.
But Roberts calls Horgan’s criticism “ironic” because they had approached the province to table a Broughton-like process before the federal government got involved.
But according to Roberts, the “door was shut without an explanation to us as to why.”
As far as economic repercussions are concerned, the decision hit Wei Wai Kum’s businesses too.
The status quo the aquaculture industry was operating on was not okay, and for First Nations saving wild salmon and environmental sustainability will always be foremost priority. But probably there were missed opportunities for the industry too, said Roberts.
“I really wish there would be more appetite to explore things like land-based aquaculture, he said and added, “or even closed containment.”
He is tired of hearing the industry say that land based aquaculture is not a feasible option for them.
“I’d like to see them step up and prove it or disprove it. Until then I don’t buy it,” he said.