Hunters & Gatherers

How a northern town and a First Nation are fishing friends — 'I don't hear a lot of blame'

While hunting and fishing has caused rifts between First Nations and their neighbours in some parts of the north, the tiny communities of Gogama and Mattagami First Nation have worked together to protect local fish stocks.

Fishing lodges and other businesses have contributed money to the first nation fish hatchery

Les Brown owns the Twin J Hideaway fishing lodge near Mattagami First Nation. (Erik White/CBC)

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.​

Les Brown says some of the guests at his fishing lodge are surprised when he suggests they ask Indigenous fishermen for tips on where to find pickerel on Mattagami Lake.

The owner of Twin J Hideaway has heard about the racial conflicts in other corners of northern Ontario that flare up over fishing and hunting, but is happy that he's never seen any sign of that in the waters around Gogama and Mattagami First Nation.

"Out here, they've done a bang up job. I have no complaints. We've always worked together and they've always shown they're respectful of the land," says Brown.

"I think at the end of the day everybody's looking out for the best interest of the wilderness."

Mattagami First Nation shares its waters with about a dozen tourist lodges, as well as trailer parks and cottages.

Chief Chad Boissoneau says a few years ago, people in his community noticed they were coming back with fewer pickerel (also known as walleye) and discussed starting a hatchery on the land of a nearby fishing lodge.

He says the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources was reluctant to offer them permission, so the hatchery was instead set up in the First Nation, where provincial regulations don't apply.

Mattagami First Nation Chief Chad Boissoneau stands outside of his community's fish hatchery. (Erik White/CBC)

"I don't need no scientist to come and tell me the population of walleye are decreasing. My elders are my scientists," says Boissoneau.

"Two-hundred to 500 boats on the lake each day during the summer, that's a big increase from years ago and guaranteed that's going to have an impact on the population."

That hatchery has helped fertilize about 2 million eggs every spring for the last five years. Tourist outfitters, mining companies and other businesses have helped cover the $30,000 in annual costs.

Boissoneau says following the 2015 train derailment and oil spill in the Makami River down stream from his community, CN Rail gave the hatchery $180,000 over three years.

He says occasionally he hears a non-Indigenous person complain about the "traditional harvesting" some in Mattagami do every spring— catching fish with nets, as well as in spawning areas. 

"There's always one bad apple on the tree that will try to over harvest or take more than they need. The community members that see that, they pressure that person to respect their catch."

But Boissoneau says he rarely hears someone in Mattagami complain about the non-native anglers.

"I don't hear a lot of blame," he says.

A fishing boat travels across Mattagami Lake, one of several hundred that can be spotted on most summer days. (Erik White/CBC)

The 600 people in Mattagami and the 300 or so in Gogama have always had a close relationship.

"I've always considered it to be one community, there's never been a dividing line," says Mike Benson, Gogama fire chief and chair of the local services board.

He says the bond was forged when earlier generations went to school together and played on the same hockey teams, and has grown stronger since the train derailment and oil spill threatened both communities.

Lodge owner Les Brown says that history makes it hard for people in the area to understand the racial tensions elsewhere in the north.

"Just be open and honest with each other. They're like everybody else," Brown says when asked to give advice to those who find themselves in conflict with their neighbours.

"People are so treading lightly and watching everything they say that it comes across as fake. Be honest with them.

"We're all one species here and let's all get along."