B.C. First Nation files title claim to challenge fish farms in traditional territory

"This is their territory. They own it and they don’t think that the fish farms have any right to be there," says the lawyer representing the Dzawada'enuxw First Nation.

'They don't think that the fish farms have any right to be there,' says lawyer representing Dzawada'enuxw

Dzawada'enuxw First Nations chief Okwilagame said his people have lived in their territories since time immemorial. (Tamo Campos/YouTube)

The Dzawada'enuxw First Nation is taking legal action to stop the operation of open-pen fish farms on its traditional territory.

The First Nation, based in the South Coast community of Kingcome Inlet, B.C., filed a claim of Aboriginal title in B.C. Supreme Court on Monday for the land and waters in and around the Broughton Archipelago northeast of Vancouver Island.

The title claim affects 10 fish farms — which have licences granted by the province — as well as a few forest tenures.

Jack Woodward, the lawyer representing the Dzawada'enuxw, said the land claim will allow the nation to seek an injunction to prevent fish farms from renewing their operating licences — many of which expire on June 20.

"This is really the ultimate remedy that they could seek," Woodward said.

"This is their territory. They own it and they don't think that the fish farms have any right to be there."

A fish farm near Kingcome Inlet, B.C., where the Dzawada'enuxw First Nation is based. (Melissa Willie/YouTube)

'Infringing on our way of life'

The Dzawada'enuxw First Nation has long fought fish farming in their territory, which they say poses a threat to wild fish populations.

Last September, environmentalists and members of the Musgamagw Dzawada'enuxw and the Kwikwasutinuxw Haxwamis First Nations occupied two Marine Harvest Canada salmon farms in their territorial waters.

Hereditary Chief Hawil'kwo'lal said the fish farm operations cannot continue.

"The fish farming industry is infringing on our way of life, by breaking the natural circle of life that has sustained us since time immemorial," Hawil'kwo'lal said.

In a statement to CBC News, Marine Harvest — which operates some of the fish farms affected by the claim — says it has sought to develop positive partnerships with First Nations.

It said it has business agreements with 15 First Nations and is seeking agreements with 24 others whose territory it operates in.

Marine Harvest did not comment on the title claim.

Listen to lawyer Jack Woodward on All Points West:

"This is their territory. They own it and they don’t think that the fish farms have any right to be there," says Jack Woodward, the lawyer representing the Dzawada'enuxw First Nation. 11:50

Aboriginal title claim

The legal strategy of using title claim gained relevance after the historic 2014 Supreme Court decision that granted the Tsilhqot'in Nation Aboriginal title to 1,700 square kilometres of territory.

The legal precedent recognized the land rights of Indigenous people — with limits — and opened up questions on how much power First Nations can exercise over projects and development on their traditional territories.

Dzawada'enuxw First Nations Chief Okwilagame said his people have lived in these territories since time immemorial.

"We have never ceded these territories to anyone, and have remained living within our ancestral lands throughout time and will continue to for generations to come," he said.

Provincial response

The province has not yet responded to the claim, but B.C.'s Ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation sent a statement to CBC News.

It said it respected the right of the Dzawada'enuxw First Nation to file this legal claim but hoped for resolution outside of the courts.

"The province is intent on building a new relationship with First Nations based on respect and recognition, engaging in respectful and meaningful ways, so First Nations partners do not feel the only recourse to resolve concerns is through the courts."

With files from All Points West