Leaders in the Northwest Territories are wondering why a Tlicho elder was charged for selling fish that he caught on his traditional lands.

The owners of two Yellowknife businesses, Bullock's Bistro and Weaver and Devore, were fined $1,000 each last week for buying fish from Narcisse Chocolate. He has pleaded guilty to selling the fish without authorization from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and will be sentenced in June.

The Dene National chief says DFO has no legal authority to dictate fishing rules to First Nations.

Bill Erasmus says he grew up netting fish near a bridge to Latham Island in Yellowknife.

"I'll continue doing that, I don't need a licence from Fisheries and Oceans. If I want to sell fish to Bullock's, I'll do that," said Erasmus.

Frank Channel

Narcisse Chocolate lives in one of about 30 cabins near Highway 3 as it passes over Frank Channel, about 92 kilometres from Yellowknife. (Marc Winkler/CBC)

Living closer to the land

Chocolate lives in one of about 30 cabins near Highway 3 as it passes over Frank Channel, about 92 kilometres from Yellowknife. It's a small community of mainly Tlicho people from Behchoko who prefer to live closer to the land.

CBC trudged along snowmobile trails and visited several shacks in the area but did not find Chocolate. His wife later said he was out cutting wood.

"I don't say it's crazy," said Dan Marion, a former mayor of Rae and Chocolate's neighbour.

"I do believe there has to be something in place, but somehow there's something lacking between the Tlicho Government, the federal government and the territorial government over what rights a guy like us could actually have.

Frank Channel Behchoko

An ice fishing hole on Frank Channel, with the bridge for Highway 3 in the background. People in the community are largely self-sufficient. (Marc Winkler/CBC)

"If I had extra fish I'd sell the damn things too," Marion said.

Marion said Chocolate is skilled at living on the land and is very independent, not relying on public housing or heating fuel, and sets a good example of how to live self-sufficiently.

"He happened to go to Yellowknife and had 25 fish," said Marion. "He sold them and bought gas and maybe brought something else back to his home. That's what Narcisse did."

Licence didn't extend to Yellowknife

Chocolate had a licence to harvest timber and fish from the Behchoko community government. It allows him to sell fish in Behchoko, but that authority does not extend to Yellowknife.

Sam Bullock, one of the Yellowknife businessmen who bought pickerel from Chocolate, told CBC that Chocolate presented the licence to him when he offered to sell the fish. Bullock made a copy of it and placed it in the detailed files he keeps of every fish he buys.

Bud Weaver and Sam Bullock

Bud Weaver and Sam Bullock, owners of two iconic Old Town businesses, were each fined $1,000 for buying fish illegally. (Richard Gleeson/CBC)

A Gwich'in citizen himself, Bullock said a licence issued by the Tlicho Government for commercial fishing in Tlicho territory should carry some weight with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

"A regulation is a regulation and these regulations have been thought out and they're in place to protect fish stocks," he said last week.

"But couldn't they just take this process one step further and issue commercial licences from local fishers so they can make a living from the fish?"

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans was unable to comment by deadline, but in an email, did say that any questions about what is and isn't prohibited under the Fisheries Act — the rules fisheries officials enforce — must be answered by the Public Prosecution Service of Canada.

An official said a DFO spokesperson would be available Wednesday

No one from the Tlicho Government was available for comment.