British Columbia·Analysis

How a historic court decision is driving a new wave of First Nations protests

A pair of First Nations are using a monumental 2014 Supreme Court of Canada decisions as legal precedent in their protest against major fish farms on Vancouver Island.

Native protesters moving on fish farms in wake of landmark decision recognizing First Nations land rights

Three hereditary chiefs of the Musgamagw Dzawada’enuxw issued the eviction notice to a fish farm on the north end of Vancouver Island this week. (Tamo Campos/YouTube)

Fish farms along British Columbia's West Coast have been at the centre of political and environmental battles for years, but this time it's a two-year-old legal decision that's behind the string of recent protests by First Nations against the industry.

In 2014, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled the Tsilhqot'in First Nation — and in turn all other First Nations in Canada — can have aboriginal title to lands outside of native reserves.

At the time, experts predicted that unless First Nations got a greater say in how their traditional territories were being used, B.C. would soon be awash in new protests and new legal cases. 

Now, two years later, those predictions appear to be coming true.

Last weekend, the Musgamagw Dzawada'enuxw First Nation served a 72-hour eviction notice on a fish farm at the north end of Vancouver Island.

Band leaders cite ancestral rights to the land as the reason for eviction.

"This is unconditional," said Willie Moon, the band's hereditary chief. "We want them out of our territory."

Later in the week, four members of the Yaakswiis Warriors — who are part of the Ahousat First Nation — were arrested north of Tofino for going onto the Dixon Bay fish farm in a boat, citing similar claims to the territory.

The B.C. Salmon Farmers Association says B.C.’s aquaculture industry is the province's largest agricultural export. (iStock)

The latest round of 'fish farm evictions' is just one sign the experts' predictions on land title are coming true

First Nations activists have also launched a campaign around the annual grizzly hunt in the Great Bear Rainforest by posting signs, most notably at the Vancouver Airport's South Terminal, warning potential hunters: "Trophy Hunting is Closed in the Great Bear Rainforest. Respect our Traditional Laws."

The tactic has been spearheaded by Coastal First Nations, an alliance of nine First Nations along the Central and North Coasts and Haida Gwaii, in an effort to raise awareness about the controversial practice.

"This is one of the most disrespectful industries," said Kitasoo/Xaixais chief councillor and CFN spokesman Douglas Neasloss.

No longer just wishing for land rights

What these groups have on their side now is the law, according to Chief Bob Chamberlin of the Kwicksutaineuk Ah-kwa-mish First Nation,

"There is legally recognized, underlying Aboriginal title to B.C.," said Chamberlin, who also serves as the chair of the First Nations Wild Salmon Alliance.

Chamberlin says Aboriginal land rights have always existed. "It's our understanding our title is not based on the Supreme Court of Canada ruling ... It is not a wish of Canadian First Nations. It is a legal imperative.

"We're there to make sure, as stewards of our territories, that people are respectful."

And while Chamberlin acknowledges going to court to fight these companies is expensive, he hopes the new Liberal government in Ottawa is watching what is happening on these lands.

"It would be a real benefit across the board for the economy, and it would remove the impacts this industry is having on the coastal environment and the marine life as well as the salmon."

Possible options

There are other ways advocates say the protests and potential court battles over fish farms could stop.

Alexandra Morton has been researching the impact of the industry for 27 years and is adamantly opposed to farming Atlantic salmon in British Columbia's waters.

Alexandra Morton says the federal government could help First Nations get rid of fish farms on their land. (CBC)

"Now we have a government that says it's their sacred obligation to respect the needs of First Nations. Let's see if they can they honour those words," said Morton.

Her suggestion is that the Canadian government could buy the farms and then close them, or the government could work with the industry to talk about what it would need to convert to the type of land-based fish farming that has already seen some limited success on Vancouver Island. 

But until something changes, expect more protests on Vancouver Island. Those involved want to send a very visible message to Ottawa that they don't want farmed fish on their coast.

And those same First Nations also know their demands are now backed by a historic court decision that clearly recognized their legal rights as never before.

"We know that our people have come from these lands," said Chamberlin. "We have origin stories, culture and traditions that tie us to our lands long before anyone else arrived here."

With files from Megan Thomas