Pub ban lifted on year-long sting that busted Sask. Indigenous man for selling $90 of fish

Details of a prolonged sting operation by conservation officers that led to a northern Saskatchewan man being found guilty of illegally selling fish are now available to the public after CBC News successfully challenged a section of a publication ban on the case. 

Officer posed as scientist, put fake equipment on fisher's land

Northern pike, like the one seen here, were among the fish a conservation officer purchased from Donald Iron during a 16-month long sting operation conducted in Canoe Lake, Sask. (Reesa Chuback/Facebook)

Details of a prolonged sting operation by conservation officers that led to a northern Saskatchewan man being found guilty of illegally selling fish are now available to the public after CBC News successfully challenged a section of a publication ban on the case.

Court documents state that conservation officers embarked on an investigation into Donald Iron of Canoe Lake, Sask., after complaints of the man having illegally sold fish for 20 years. 

Details of the investigation had been part of a publication ban on the case. The Crown and defence in the case agreed to have that portion of the ban lifted.

The undercover investigation into Iron's actions started in 2016. 

A conservation officer, whose identity remains protected by the publication ban, travelled to Canoe Narrows posing as a scientist. 

The officer offered Iron $25 initially and $20 every month after to place "air-quality monitoring equipment," which was fake, in Iron's yard. Iron agreed to the officer's proposal.

The undercover officer visited Iron's home to "check" and "change" filters on the fake equipment filters once or twice a month between June 2016 and October 2017.

Illegally selling even a few fish, here and there, is not a blameless, or a victimless offence.- Justice Miguel Martinez's decision against Donald Iron

During these visits, Iron and the undercover conservation officer "often chatted" about many subjects, including fish and fishing, court documents say. 

Iron told the undercover officer he would have fish for the officer the next time he visited, however "for one reason or another" Iron did not have fish for the officer.

"Finally, on the officer's trip to Canoe Narrows on Feb. 23, 2017, the defendant told the officer that he had a bag of fish for him," the documents read. 

Iron gave the undercover officer a bag containing two northern pike fillets and asked for a pack of cigarettes in exchange. 

The officer instead offered Iron $10, which is what Iron told the officer a pack of cigarettes cost, according to court documents.

On April 23, 2017, Iron gave the undercover officer four bags of walleye. When the officer asked how much Iron wanted for the fish, he asked for $10 per bag. 

The undercover officer completed similar transactions on May 30, 2017, and Sept. 18, 2018, for four bags of northern pike and two bags of walleye respectively. 

The officer then removed the fake air-quality monitoring equipment from Iron's yard. In total $90 worth of fish was purchased.

"According to what [Iron] told the officer, all of the fish were taken from Canoe Lake," the decision read.

Judge rules investigation was not entrapment

Dwayne Stonechild, Iron's defence lawyer, argued his client was entrapped by conservation officers.

"Defence counsel submitted that the undercover officer enticed his illiterate, poor, and allegedly alcoholic client into committing these offences by 'waving money in his face,' " the documents read.

Justice Miguel Martinez ruled otherwise. 

"What the officer never did during those conversations was to ask the defendant to sell him any fish," Martinez's decision read. "When it eventually came to pass that the defendant had some fish for the officer, it was he who put a price on them."

Martinez's decision cited a previous court decision that found undercover operations were acceptable in this type of investigation. That decision, which dealt with the illegal sale of fish in Canoe Narrows, stated monitoring the illegal sale of fish is "obviously difficult" and "unlikely to give results" in small communities.

The judge ruled that there was no evidence of the undercover officer taking advantage of his friendship with Iron or Iron's impoverished state or alcohol abuse.

Martinez also addressed concerns allegedly raised by Canoe Lake First Nation chief and council about an investigation "conducted by state authorities, in secret," on band lands in his decision. Martinez noted a previous court decision addressing what rights conservation officers to investigate the illegal sale of meat in Indigenous communities. 

"A wildlife officer -- today referred to as a conservation officer -- may enter upon First Nation's lands to enforce provincial legislation without first obtaining permission from the First Nation," Martinez wrote.

Illegal sale of fish 'essentially stealing' from other community members: Martinez

During Iron's trial, evidence presented on behalf of the Canoe Lake fishery showed, "that what was once an abundant, and healthy fishery is now fragile," Martinez's decision said. 

The Canoe Lake Fishery, established in 1954 and operated by the Canoe Lake Fishermen's Co-operative, is a commercial operation that is authorized to fish two or three days every January.

"The catch limit is 5,000 kilograms of fish, which is nine per cent of what it once was," the decision said. 

Court heard that the Canoe Lake Fishery produced tens of thousands of kilograms of fish in its early years.

Iron and his defence lawyer tried to argue that because the $90 of fish he sold was a such a small amount, the charges against him should be dropped. 

"Illegally selling even a few fish, here and there, is not a blameless, or a victimless offence," his decision read.

"People like Mr. Iron, who take more fish than they or their families need to feed themselves, and then illegally sell those fish, are essentially stealing from other members of their communities." 

'Entirely inappropriate': Scientists cry foul on sting tactics

Eric Lamb says that when police start posing as scientists, they damage the work of real scientists. (Submitted by Eric Lamb)

Eric Lamb, an associate professor in the department of plant sciences at the University of Saskatchewan, said the way conservation officers went about their investigation is potentially harmful to real scientists' work.

"Posing as a scientist is entirely inappropriate and I don't think they should ever be considering doing this under any circumstances," Lamb said. 

He said his department has worked hard to establish good relationships with Indigenous communities. 

Lamb said conservation officers should think about scientists' efforts at relationship building in Sask. and reconsider their methods when conducting future undercover investigations.

"There's many things [as a scientist] you might be wanting to do, and hearing that somebody would go out there and basically betray that trust to carry out a law enforcement operation is very distressing to us."