The many perspectives of the Lake Nipissing pickerel dispute
Fishing restrictions due to dwindling pickerel population has stoked racial tensions
Hunters and Gatherers is series looking at hunting and fishing in northern Ontario, how Indigenous rights can divide people, how some northerners find ways to share the resources and what sharing the land means for reconciliation.
No matter which of its shores you live by and whether or not your ancestors lived there as well, the pickerel (or walleye) of Lake Nipissing are treasured.
But the argument over who is allowed to catch those fish, when they're allowed to catch them and how much they can pull into their boat has for decades driven those neighbours against each other.
That's largely because the pickerel population has been shrinking. Nipissing First Nation has blamed over-fishing on tourists and recreational anglers, while the businesses that rely on the lake blame First Nations commercial fishing.
Many want to define this conflict along stark racial lines, but there are lots of different perspectives.
Scott McLeod grew up fishing on Lake Nipissing, like almost everyone else in his First Nation.
But he left to work in fish management for the Ministry of Natural Resources—which many in his community saw as the enemy, the taker of their rights.
McLeod is now the chief of Nipissing First Nation and brokered a deal with his former employer, the memorandum of understanding or MOU that sees the two sides working more closely together.
They now share fish harvesting information, do enforcement patrols together and if a First Nations fisherman is violating the rules set by the band, they can now face provincial charges.
McLeod admits that some in Nipissing First Nation disagree with the new regime and he's had to do a lot of explaining.
"I've always been one to err on the side of the fish and not the political winds," McLeod says.
He says the agreement is a sign of self-government, the recognition of their control over the lake and their rights to the fish.
"They want equality and equality to them is apparently us following their rules," he says.
"It's the same dirt that we walk on, but it's not necessarily the same nation, and that's just how it is."
The enforcer of new rules
Jeff McLeod spends a lot of time out on the waters of Lake Nipissing, but he doesn't spend much time fishing.
"Not too much any more. I think I was out once last year and I haven't been out this year at all," he says.
McLeod is the natural resources manager for Nipissing First Nation, which means, among other things, he helps enforce the fishing rules for both subsistence and commercial fishers.
Some of the rules have changed in the last couple of years with the signing of a memorandum of understanding or MOU with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry.
It now sees Nipissing conservation officials do join patrols on the lake with the MNRF, something that would have been unthinkable in years past.
"We've seen some growing pains, which is part of self-government," says McLeod.
"There's a lot of misconceptions about the MOU. A lot of guys think it's the MNRF telling us what to do."
The commercial fisherman
In a garage on the side of Highway 17, just outside of Sturgeon Falls, Lorne Stevens sells pickerel, whether you want it fresh, frozen or fried with a side of chips.
He is one of about a dozen commercial fishermen licensed by Nipissing First Nation.
Stevens is skeptical of all the studies, both by his first nation and by the provincial government, that say the lake is short on pickerel.
"You should see the amount of fish in that lake," he says.
Stevens has openly defied the new commercial fishing regulations Nipissing has put in place and has yet to be charged by provincial authorities. Although others have been.
He feels that the regulations being put on fishermen of all backgrounds just stokes racial tensions.
"It's not calming it down or bringing people closer together, it's pushing us apart," Stevens says.
"I get so many non Natives that come here and buy fish off me. They're so disgusted it's cheaper for them to buy fish off me than drive around in their boat for an hour. So it's not even worth it them going fishing."
The First Nation biologist
Nipissing First Nation is Nikki Commanda's home community, but she didn't grow up there.
Commanda doesn't fish.
And as a biologist, she had a hard time with the commercial fishery in her community when she first moved there to work for the first nation.
"I just saw commercial fishing as taking fish from the lake and I didn't understand the history and that's what's making me understand what's going on today," Commanda says.
Like her colleagues with the provincial government, she too is seeing signs of a pickerel recovery in the lake and credits some of the new policies, such as the first nation's ban on fishing during spawning season.
But she is quick to point that a few commercial fishermen who skirt the rules shouldn't be seen as representing the entire community.
"We can't let non-compliance define who we are as an entire community. Most of us are subsistence fishers. Most of our commercial fishermen do follow Nipissing's rules and regulations," Commanda says.
The government biologist
Indigenous and non-Indigenous fishermen on Lake Nipissing tend to disagree about a lot of things, but they do share a dislike of Ministry of Natural Resources policies and question their science.
"We have a really high confidence in the number of fish that are being angled and being kept," says ministry management biologist Kim Tremblay.
She says while scientists tend to see things as black or white, it's rarely that way when it comes to resource management.
"I'd like to say that it was black and white and it always went with the way the data went," says Tremblay.
"These kinds of issues are always political, because you have to walk in everybody's shoes and consider how they're related to the environment and the resource."
The fishing guide
Thomas Gadomski works just steps from Lake Nipissing.
But the owner of North Bay Outfitters, who also works as a fishing guide, only tries for bass and pike on the big lake now.
The same is true of his customers, who were once mostly coming in to buy supplies for walleye fishing.
"From the beginning, 80 per cent was walleye related. Now, five per cent is walleye related. The difference is huge," says Gadomski.
He refuses to eat in restaurants that serve commercially caught Nipissing fish, but feels they could co-exist with recreational anglers on the lake.
Gadomski places a lot of blame on the Ministry of Natural Resources, saying it's incredibly difficult to find a walleye that's longer than the 46 cm "slot size."
"You have to go sometimes though 100 fish maybe to get one keeper," he says.
Gadomski is frustrated that people, especially politicians, seem to side step this issue because of the racial tensions. And that the people you see posting on Facebook or quoted in the news media tend to be from the extremes.
"There is always those few on both sides that try to pick a fight. I think that's the part we got to put away," he says.
"It's not just one side. We just got to calm down and look what will benefit all of us. And put aside the rights and treaties, this is not the way to go. We should take a look at what's happening and how to make it better for all of us."
The marina owner
Samantha Simpkin and her husband made a big decision seven years ago.
They quit their jobs and moved north with a newborn baby to run Fish Bay Marina on Lake Nipissing.
"We sold everything," says Simpkin.
"It's scary to think what would happen if the walleye weren't there and people didn't come anymore."
As president of the Lake Nipissing Stakeholders Assocation, Simpkin has taken the pickerel issue head on and feels working together with Nipissing First Nation is the best way to solve problems, since, in her view, governments have done little to save the lake.
"They do not focus on local issues like this. They are focused at a much higher level and we get pushed to the side," she says.
"There might be ways that we should work together and move forward instead of circling and circling and circling. Having different ministries create reports that do nothing expect put out recommendations that the last report put out."
Simpkin says Lake Nipissing is also a good example of why the universal hunting and fishing rights for Indigenous people guaranteed in the treaties and in the constitution might need to be adjusted to suit the 21st Century.
"I'm not saying taking any rights away from anybody, but make the rights more equal. For everybody," she says.