Indigenous Realities and Fishery Policy

By Helen Forsey

Photo by Ali Kazal on Unsplash.

As Barry’s co-conspirator on Changing Course, I am pleased to contribute a posting to the Articles page of his website.

We are all becoming more aware these days of the presence and importance of indigenous peoples, not only in our history but now, in our present-day society. Indigenous people were the first fish harvesters in our waters, and they continue to be harvesters today. Although these facts are not highlighted in the Changing Course proposal, they are very relevant to current discussions about our fisheries. I want to focus on two major aspects of this relevance.

First of all, adjacency and tradition provide coastal people, indigenous and otherwise, with common-sense use rights to harvest the ocean’s riches. With the recent long-overdue acknowledgement of indigenous identity and rights, and the gradual societal move towards reconciliation, indigenous harvesters are rightly reclaiming their place in the fishery. The importance of including them and their communities in policy and programming has been recognized, at least in part, in the updated Fisheries Act, the Minister’s mandate letter and DFO’s official documents.

But there is a second aspect of this issue that is every bit as important – the wealth of ecological knowledge and understanding built into traditional indigenous cultures. Many of the reality-based insights that generations of outport people in Newfoundland and Labrador developed through centuries of traditional inshore fishing resemble the traditional knowledge of indigenous coastal societies. Yet the wisdom of both has been largely neglected or explicitly rejected by the rapacious corporate-dominated industrial fishery under the management of DFO, leading to the disastrous failures cited in Changing Course.

Long before Europeans discovered the rich fishing grounds along the coasts of Newfoundland and Labrador, a wide range of fish, seabirds and marine mammals were traditionally harvested by Beothuk, Mi’kmaq and Inuit. Their fisheries included salmon, caplin, cod, flounder, char, herring, lobster, scallops, mussels, and clams. Indigenous harvesters learned the peculiarities of each location, the marks and the tides, read the signals from the birds and other species, built stone weirs and small seaworthy craft, and became experts with fish spears, hooks and nets. Although the inheritors of those traditions across Canada have been robbed of some of their priceless heritage by colonialism and capitalism, their knowledge and skills are beginning to be recognized and recovered.

And they had better be. At this critical time for our oceans and our planet, we need understandings that can complement Western science, fill the gaps and counteract the errors in what we’ve been doing. In our struggle to change course and avert further ecological and economic disaster, we urgently need the wisdom and experience of indigenous societies, wisdom that has evolved through centuries of living sustainably in the places they – and now also the rest of us – inhabit.

Barry and I have been reading the book “Changing Tides” by Alejandro Frid, a fisheries ecologist working with indigenous nations on BC’s Central Coast. Frid’s bringing together of Western science and indigenous knowledge and culture is an eye-opener for me, validating and throwing new light on many of Barry’s observations. The BC coast, unlike Newfoundland and Labrador, was densely populated by First Nations peoples, and as Frid points out, their civilizations flourished without destroying the marine environment and the sometimes fragile fish stocks that were staples in their diets. Colonization and industrial fisheries came later to that coast – within living memory in some places – and the attitudes and understandings that enabled that sustainability are still there. Within this holistic context, Frid and his indigenous colleagues are drawing on traditional knowledge as well as the evolving science to rebuild ecological and social balance.

All of this must inform our approach as we work towards a new paradigm for Canada’s fishery policy. It is DFO that must ensure that this happens, since it is DFO that is ultimately tasked with managing our fisheries and protecting the marine environment. Indigenous harvesters and their communities must be fully involved in developing and implementing innovation projects and training programs, and their participation in the fishery facilitated. They must have their input taken seriously, and sustainable indigenous fishery practices must be integrated into DFO policy, training and implementation.

The history of Canada’s relations with indigenous peoples is rife with examples of racism, ignorance, exclusion and tokenism – and the fishery sector is no exception. Things are improving, but we have a long way to go. The major shift proposed in Changing Course provides the opportunity to put in practice all that has been learned through generations of hard work, observation, creativity and resilience in fishing outports and indigenous coastal communities. Let’s take advantage of that opportunity.

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