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VIDEO: First Nations land dispute breaks out at open house for proposed fish farm site

The second engagement session was held in-person at the Port McNeil Community Hall
Anti-fish farm activists enter the open house to protest. (Tyson Whitney - North Island Gazette)

A proposed fish farm off Northern Vancouver Island is causing controversy within First Nation communities.

Two open houses were held on Nov. 30 to provide information and address questions about a fish farm proposed in the Chatham Channel as a joint venture between Tlowitsis First Nation and Grieg Seafood British Columbia Ltd.

These events were held as part of the ‘harmonized’ regulatory approval process for licenses and permits from both provincial and federal authorities required for the farm to be constructed and start operations. These include a licence of occupation from the province, an operating license from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), and a permit from Transport Canada.

The first session, held virtually, started with remarks by Tlowitsis Chief John Smith about the proposed farm and what it would mean for the Nation.

The new salmon farm is sited in the Chatham Channel, east of Minstrel Island, on what is the Nation’s unceded territory, said Smith. If approved, it would join three other farms already operating in the nearby Clio Channel, which have helped Tlowitsis Nation prosper, he added.

“It’s been a godsend to our tribe,” said Smith. “Before we had income from the fish farms and some forestry, we had basically nothing.”

The new farm will help Tlowitsis Nation develop a new community, for which it has already purchased land south of Campbell River. It is called “Nenagwas”, meaning ‘a place to come home to,’ because the Nation has not had a home for over 40 years, he said.

Smith said the farms operating in Nation territory have not damaged the environment or wild fish spawning.

“The reality is the farms aren’t doing the damage that people keep saying they do,” he said. “It’s time that people owned up to the fact that they’ve been giving misinformation to people, and it’s got to stop.”

The virtual meeting then turned to a question and answer session, in which several members of the public, many of whom identified as being from neighbouring First Nations, said the consultation process has been flawed.

Ruby Manila, a member of the Da’naxda’xw First Nation, said three of four Da’naxda’xw hereditary chiefs were not notified of the application.

“I would have expected at least the Tlowitsis to reach out to all First Nations who this would affect, to tell them they were making an application — and instead we’re sort of finding out things are happening without consultation,” she said. “We have a right to know what’s going on within our own territories.”

The application has the potential to affect all Kwakwaka’wakw people who use the area for fishing, she said.

Andrew Wadhams, a Ma’amtagila hereditary chief, also said several hereditary leaders had not been contacted.

“I took my time out yesterday to contact all the hereditary chiefs of the Ma’amtagila, along with all the hereditary chiefs of the Tlowitsis, and a lot of the membership, and not one of them was ever consulted about the fish farm,” he said.

Brian Wadhams, another hereditary Ma’amtagila chief and former ‘Namgis First Nation councillor, said it is important for Tlowitsis Nation to negotiate with all surrounding Nations.

“What disturbs us the most is that we fought for 30 years to remove farms from the Broughton Archipelago, and here we are going back to the same old, same old,” he said. “It’s really frustrating for us as First Nations people that rely on those areas for food sustenance and our food security needs.”

Mayana Slobodian asked whether Grieg Seafood is aware of an ongoing jurisdictional conflict between Tlowitsis and Ma’amtagila.

“Considering that this conflict is right now really intensifying, I wonder if any application should be considered on this territory, when there’s so clearly a current conflict going on,” said Slobodian.

Andrew Wadhams said this consideration is important because the proposed fish farm is located in a region of overlapping territory.

“It’s going to be anchored onto Ma’amtagila land, and the Ma’amtagila were never consulted or approached by anyone, in any shape or form,” he said.

Other respondents said they were concerned about the potential impact of the new farm on eulachon, a small fish important as a source of traditional food and medicine, which lives in the ocean but spawn in freshwater.

“We have some of the only rivers in the world that provide us with eulachons — and it’s our sustenance; it’s our way of life; it’s our generational teachings — they are really paramount to who we are,” said Felicia Greekas.

Central Coast populations of this species were assessed as ‘endangered’ by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada in 2011, but have not been formally protected under the federal Species At Risk Act.

The second engagement session was held in-person at the Port McNeill Community Hall later that night, where anti-fish farm activists protested inside the building led by ‘Namgis First Nation councillor Ernest Alfred, who is also a hereditary chief for the Tlowitsis First Nation.

Alfred demanded to know why the open house was being held in Port McNeill, arguing his group of people had to travel over from Cormorant Island by boat which made consultation difficult for them, and then he requested for the Tlowitsis to hold a meeting with the ‘Namgis in Alert Bay.

“And for those who are pro industry, we’ve said it before, we’ve said it loud and clear, we want the farms out,” Alfred said.

Hereditary chiefs for the Kwakiutl First Nation and the Ma’amtagila First Nation spoke up after that, all arguing for more consultation and once again confirming that the land the proposed fish farm will be attached to is disputed.

After the hereditary chiefs finished speaking, Bernie Taekema, an independent consultant hired by the Tlowitsis First Nation for its tenure application, gave a brief presentation, explaining all the logistics behind the proposed fish farm and how the nation would benefit from it.

“The proposed fish to be cultivated is Atlantic salmon,” said Taekema, who also noted the government has a list of species of special concern, “and there were none of those species observed in the proposed area for the fish farm.”

He added the farm would create 27 full time jobs with direct and in-direct employment, including additional support from North Island contractors and trades.

Smith himself was the last person to talk at the open house, his voice breaking as he detailed how his people feel lost and how the proposed farm will positively impact their lives, while again stating flat out he thinks fish farms are not hazardous to the environment or other species.

“We haven’t seen it and science hasn’t seen it, so we’re fine with it — I wish they [activists] would forget us and let us do our thing to help our people out.”

After he finished speaking, the presentation ended with Alfred shouting for Smith to render his resignation.

* This article has been updated to clarify Brian Wadhams and Ernest Alfred’s titles


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Port Alice resident Bruce Lloyd (far right) listens to the hereditary chiefs speak. (Tyson Whitney - North Island Gazette)
Port Hardy mayor Dennis Dugas was in attendance at the meeting. (Tyson Whitney - North Island Gazette)
Discussion going on during a break. (Tyson Whitney - North Island Gazette)
Bernie Taekema (far left) and Chief John Smith (far right). (Tyson Whitney - North Island Gazette)
Protestors drum and chant outside in the rain before the start of the open house. (Tyson Whitney - North Island Gazette)