The Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw First Nations (GNN) say they are done with Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) controlling aquaculture and fisheries in their traditional waters.
After a March 25 boat blessing ceremony at Port Hardy’s Seagate wharf, attended by the Kwakiutl First Nation, other coastal First Nations and local politicians, GNN leaders marched to Carrot Park and announced the pending creating a Memorandum Of Understanding to assert control over fisheries in their traditional territories.
Before they were amalgamated and forcibly relocated to the Tsulquate reserve in the 1960’s, the Gwa’sala people mostly lived and traveled around Smith Inlet and the surrounding islands. The ‘Nakwaxda’xw people were in Seymour Inlet, the Deserter’s Group, Blunden Harbour, and surrounding islands.
GNN member Charles Willie opened the announcement by calling Kwakiutl First Nation hereditary chief David Mungo Knox to speak. Knox welcomed everyone to Kwakiutl traditonal territory.
“This is Fort Rupert land,” said Knox. “Thank you to Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw for acknowledging the Kwakiutl, there’s so much history amongst all the Kwakwaka’wakw nations, we’re all interconnected through marriage for thousands and thousands of years, which is why we’ve always shared all our resources together, and I’d like to thank you all for coming.”
GNN’s former elected chief Paddy Walkus was given the microphone. He noted that what has been happening historically to the nations in their own lands thanks to federal fisheries policies is not right.
“We now have to take a stand, we now have to express something that is so vital to the existence of our people and our own land and territories… we need to take back the control, take back what was rightfully ours, because at no time did we give any kind of OK to anyone to do the management or caretaking of our resources, in particular the fisheries resource. We all know what has happened recently, the decimation of all species of fish in all of our waters… the harm that has happened through the mismanagement of DFO.”
Walkus asserted the nations will now be instating their traditional laws, stating they are going to “take over that part of legislation that has oppressed us for too long.”
He confirmed that this means they will control the licensing of the finfish industry within all of their traditional territories.
“Strong words,” said Willie, adding they are giving notice to municipalities, to B.C., and to all of Canada, that “we are the Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw, and it is us you come to and seek our permission, our input, into our lands and territories.”
GNN councillor Darryl Coon was next to speak for the nations, saying that now is the time for GNN’s chief and council to take the “monumental step to take back what’s rightfully ours, the waters of the Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw territories. For far too long we have allowed DFO to do what they’ve done, the lies, the deceits, everything above and below it, DFO has done this for years and years and years and today’s the day we are going to take it back.”
Coon’s voice broke as he talked about how they are doing this for the future generations of GNN youth. “It’s for these guys that we stand up today and fight back for what’s rightfully ours… for all the children of the Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw nations.”
GNN elected chief Terry Walkus Sr. also spoke briefly, stating they will fight against DFO who are “trying to tell us who can and who can’t work in our territory” before introducing his son, GNN Band Manager Leslie Walkus, to talk about the Memorandum Of Understanding, which is being supported by neighbouring coastal First Nations.
“Under the guidance of our hereditary leadership, our elders and our matriarchs, we are taking the step of building a legislative framework,” he said. “As our first step, we are looking at aquaculture.”
Leslie added that people from Ottawa shouldn’t be allowed to take away “our hereditary leadership’s ability to say what happens in their territory” and that the Memorandum of Understanding will be built upon all the salmon research the nations have done over the years, such as having their own monitor on fish farms whenever there’s a transfer done, treatment, or a concern about fish health. GNN also has crews out that monitor the rivers in their traditional territories and have spent over $3 million in the past three years conducting this kind of research.
“We are putting DFO on notice that they’re not going to come to the North Island and make decisions about important jobs and about the territory that belong to these chiefs,” said Leslie. “We are going to take this on ourselves, because we are capable of doing it ourselves.”
North Island MLA Michele Babchuk was called to speak after that, stating she’s heard from concerned voices about the economic impact if the 79 federal aquaculture licences set to expire by June 30, 2022, are not renewed.
She spoke about Premier John Horgan’s recent letter to the federal Liberal government where he stated those same concerns about the salmon farming industry, before noting she’s “very proud of being part of a provincial government that is committed to the rights and titles of Indigenous people to self-determination and the inherent right of self-government.”
Port McNeill mayor Gaby Wickstrom was given the microphone next. She said she felt very privileged to be in attendance, and that she has “listened and I have learned a lot.”
She added she supports the nation as they walk their path towards self determination, and that as a municipal leader she will help advocate for those who want “out of aquaculture,” while also helping those who want to look at “different ways of doing aquaculture.”
Port Hardy mayor Dennis Dugas was the last politician to speak.
“Today is just one day in many days ahead in the fight to maintain our finfish industry in our area,” he said. “It’s so important to us.”
Dugas summed everything up by saying that the North Island’s economic future will prosper with everyone working together.
“It’s a partnership. We’re all in this together. It’s about us all working together. As we grow together, I know that we can prosper together.”
The Gazette has reached out for comment from DFO and will update this story when we hear back.