PORT COQUITLAM—James Wadhams furrows his forehead when he thinks of the task ahead of him.
Outside Port Coquitlam Provincial Court, flanked by two supporters, he clutches a file filled with documents no one seems interested in.
“It’s the third time they’ve taken me to court,” Wadhams says with a sigh.
This time, though, he’s putting up a fight.
In court, he went by the name “Gee-alas” – his Kwakiutl name, one which he refused to spell because Kwakwala is only spoken and has no alphabet.
A resident of Port McNeill on Vancouver Island, Wadhams was found guilty in July of illegally selling halibut that had been caught under an aboriginal communal license for food, social, ceremonial purposes to the owners of two fish and chip shops in Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows.
Wadhams hoped he could catch the tail end of the salmon fishing season, but those hopes were quashed when sentencing was delayed last week after the Crown prosecutor in charge of his file fell ill.
He’s been asked to return to court in January.
“My life has come to a halt,” says the 61-year-old, who has now filed a request for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans to return his confiscated truck, fishing gear and his boat – ‘Bella Nova.’
He also refuses to acknowledge his recent Fisheries Act conviction – the second since 2008.
A proud Kwakiutl, he descends from the Kwakwaka’wakw, who have fished the strait and hunted in the forests of northern Vancouver Island near Port Hardy and Port McNeil for thousands of years.
“The courts have taken my rights away,” says Wadhams, who remembers being carried onto a fishing boat by his grandfather before he could walk.
“I just want my life back.”
Wadhams and his supporters insist the province of British Columbia has no jurisdiction over them.
He reached far back in time, pointing to the Magna Carta, an order by Queen Anne, who reigned from 1702 to 1714, and the Royal Proclamation of 1763 to support his stance.
The Kwakiutl, he argued, had never ceded their land to the British and had every right to make a living through fishing.
Van Gale Dumont, or “Ste-emas,” is now helping Wadhams take his fight to the federal court.
Nobody has the guts to stand up to these people, says Ste-emas, a member of the Big Stone Cree Band and who puffs his chest while holding up the Royal Proclamation.
“The DFO confiscated his truck and boat without good reason. It is an Indian’s way of life: hunting, fishing and trapping and it’s his prerogative whether he wants to sell his game and fish.”
The Department of Fisheries and Oceans began a year-and-a-half-long investigation into two fish and chip shop owners, as well as Wadhams, after receiving tips from the public on Vancouver Island.
Surveillance was conducted on Wadhams, who was seen delivering fish to Amy Zhuo Hua Zheng and Michael Kam Fuk Ching, who have since pleaded guilty to the offences.
Ching, who owns Austin Fish and Chips in Valley Fair Mall in Maple Ridge, was fined $5,000 for three Fisheries Act contraventions, while Zheng, who owns Austin Fish and Chips in Pitt Meadows, got a $500 fine for two violations.
DFO officials seized Wadhams’ Ford Explorer and fishing boat as part of the investigation.
John Cummins, the leader of B.C. Conservatives and an outspoken critic of the DFO, dismisses Wadhams’ claim of aboriginal rights.
“There is no aboriginal right to a commercial fishery,” said Cummins, citing a court ruling on the salmon fishery in the Fraser River.
“For them to be able to claim that aboriginal right to sell halibut, they would have to demonstrate that they caught and sold halibut prior to contact with Europeans. Show the evidence that it happened.”
Cummins calls Wadhams’ defence is “an attempt to justify an illegal activity.”
If the DFO was serious about protecting fisheries, there would be restrictions on how much fish could be caught under a ceremonial license, Cummins said.
“If you allow people to catch commercial quantities of fish, then you shouldn’t be surprised that they sell it,” he added.
“There are simply not enough resources dedicated to eradicating these illegal fisheries. You can’t manage the fishery properly when you don’t know what’s being harvested. This destroys everyone’s opportunity to fish.”