What right do we have to tell Native people
what they can and can't do?
It's not that far-fetched to view the Nuu-chah-nulth and their lands as an illegally occupied nation
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This is the time of year that, as I drive through the town of Port Alberni heading to my home on the west coast of Vancouver Island, Native people are along the roadside selling their salmon. I bought a fish from them last month, a sockeye so fresh that its eyes were still clear, its skin gleaming silver.
I brought my salmon over to a friend's house for dinner. He admired the fillet, the flesh bright and red and firm, and asked where I got it. When I told him I'd bought it from a Native seller at the side of the road, he took a step back. "I don't mind if they catch fish for food," he said, straightening himself as he spoke. "But they should not be allowed to sell it."
He's far from the first person to say this to me. Many locals have told me that I shouldn't support the "illegal" Native fishery. They state this with such confidence that I can only wonder how much they have thought it out. Who the hell are we, to tell them what they can or cannot do?
We all know that "they" were here first. In Port Alberni, of all places, the displacement of the Native people from their own village site was documented by the very man who forced them out: a Scotsman called Gilbert Malcolm Sproat.
In 1860, Sproat sailed two ships up the Alberni canal. Upon encountering a Nuu-chah-nulth village at the mouth of the Somass River, Sproat informed the chief "that his tribe must move their encampment, as we had bought all the surrounding land from the Queen of England, and wished to occupy the site of the village for a particular purpose." These are Sproat's own words.
"Look at this place now," says Harry Lucas, pointing towards the shiny white fibreglass boats tied up at the marina, next to the river mouth. Harry, 69, has been fighting for the Nuu-chah-nulth rights, both to fish and to sell fish, for three decades. "It used to belong to us. There used to be houses here."
I met Harry a couple of weeks ago, selling his fish up the road. I wanted to hear the Nuu-chah-nulth perspective on having their fishery regulated by a people who are relative newcomers to this land. "We were given that right, to sell our fish, by the courts," says Harry.
He's right. The Nuu-chah-nulth invested a decade in legal preparation, over three years of that in court. Numerous expert witnesses, ranging from Nuu-chah-nulth oral historians, to archaeologists and anthropologists from Canadian and US universities, provided evidence that Nuu-chah-nulth seafood trade did indeed predate the arrival of the Europeans. Last autumn, British Columbia Supreme Court Justice Nicole Garson concluded that the Nuu-chah-nulth had succeeded in proving a long history of trading and selling fisheries resources, and ruled in their favour.
What I wonder about, though, is why Native people went to so much effort to prove this in court. While some non-Native Canadians feel that First Nations are being demanding, or are favoured by special rules that apply only to them, I actually think the Natives are being quite tolerant of the fact that our presence is here at all.
I am reminded of something one of my Nuu-chah-nulth friends said to me years ago. I had mentioned the reserve where he lived, and he turned to me abruptly. "Don't call my village a reserve," he said. Just words. But there is so much loaded into those words. His home village has been inhabited for thousands of years, possibly as many as 5,000 years. Call it a village, and you acknowledge that history, that connection. Call it a reserve, and you accept that the land is owned by the Canadian government, that its inhabitants live there by the government's grace.
And that's what I think of, when I hear of the three years Nuu-chah-nulth spent giving evidence in court. Sure, they won the case, though Canada has appealed the decision (hearing dates for the appeal are set for this December). But, by the very fact of their being there, in the courtroom, Nuu-chah-nulth accept Canada's authority: they are participating in the process. No one alive today, Native or non-Native, has asked for the situation we are in now. And there are no easy answers: they're here and we're here and, somehow, we've got to learn to live together.
But if what happened in Port Alberni 150 years ago happened today – if one nation moved in, unprovoked, to an established and occupied land and forced its inhabitants out – there would be global outrage. The occupation would be considered illegal.
It's easy to come up with quick opinions or judgements, but I think it is important to try to look at the bigger picture: the history, the context and, perhaps, even a cautious step outside our own narrow world view.
It's not actually that far-fetched to view the Nuu-chah-nulth (or any other First Nation in Canada that has not signed a treaty with the Canadian government) as an illegally occupied nation. And, once you look at it that way, well, it's hard not to ask: who the hell are we, anyway, thinking we have a right to tell them what they can or cannot do?