A historic meeting took place in Alert Bay when Premier John Horgan met with First Nations who are protesting net-pen salmon farms in their territory.
Horgan was accompanied by Indigenous Relations Minister Scott Fraser, Agriculture Minister Lana Popham and Transportation Minister Claire Trevena, the MLA for North Island. Rachel Blaney, MP for North Island-Powell River also attended the event, which was held on Oct. 10.
Chief Arthur Dick Sr. of the Mamalilikala Nation noted it was “the first time we have ever had all of our chiefs and families represented here to come and speak to you with one voice.”
Chief Councillor of the Mamalilikala First Nation, Richard Sumner, stated “the unity in our fight with fish farms in our territories is unprecedented and historic.”
While Horgan did not commit to removing the fish farms, he instead announced Popham would be meeting with the federal Minister for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, “to tell Mr. Leblanc what she has heard here today and what the commitment is of our government, which is first and foremost to protect wild salmon.”
Horgan also said he was “prepared to meet again in Victoria with a delegation of your choosing so we can talk about next steps.”
“The worst thing I would want to see is the creation of a committee to consult some more – you heard the message,” said Musgamagw Chief Bill Wilson.
While in opposition, B.C. NDP politicians campaigned against the net-pen industry and led a committee that recommended B.C.’s North Coast be kept off limits to them.
Two net-pen salmon farms, Swanson and Midsummer Island, have been occupied by the members of the Mugamagw, ’Namgis and Mamalilikala First Nations since late August. Popham’s constituency office was also briefly occupied in late September by a group of young people claiming solidarity with the First Nations communities.
Horgan and the officials were greeted with a Salmon Dance performed by First Nations youth and were then welcomed into the Big House where they were invited to listen to remarks from the Mamalilikala, ‘Namgis, Tlowitsis-Mamtagila, and Musgamagw Dzawada’enuxw nations.
They also listened to a presentation given by Eric Hobson, chair at Kuterra, the land-based salmon farm owned by the ‘Namgis which uses a Recirculating Aquaculture System.
Hereditary chiefs, elected chiefs, and elders from each nation present had the opportunity to address the Premier and his delegation.
“Mr. Premier, a disaster has happened. Our wild salmon stocks are at a historic low. Our crabs, clams, prawns – all the things in the water are just threatened – to ignore our elected council’s political authority, I agree with my chiefs, is equal to genocide,” said Sumner.
“You as political leaders of this province have an opportunity to put your name in the books because the fish farms are going to go and the people involved in that will be seen as people with vision. We are solemn in our resolve to get them out,” said ‘Namgis Chief Don Svanvik.
‘Namgis Chief Bill Cranmer added, “there are two distinct runs in the Nimpkish river that are gone, that have disappeared and will never come back and we believe that is because of the fish farms.”
A group of youth who have spent time occupying the fish farms also addressed the politicians.
“Our people were able to sustain our traditional food for thousands and thousands of years. With the decline of our resources, it makes us worry that we wouldn’t be able to continue these traditions that have been passed down from generation to generation,” said 17-year-old Gwantilakw Cranmer.
“There is no need for us to go on an on anymore. These people standing up here have been witness to this for 30 years,” said Ernest Alfred, who has been occupying Swanson Island since late August. “We can take care of our environment collectively, but we need to remind everybody that it is the people standing up here that have the final say in what goes on in our territories.”
During the closing remarks, Chief Bill Wilson questioned the Premier. “The reality is your government has the authority not to re-issue those permits, so when those expire, will you renew them?”
Horgan responded by saying that “What we are doing today I think is sending a pretty clear message to those that are in the business of open net fish farming that there is a large body of opinion against that activity. ”
He then added, “You are telling me, the leader of a new government with members of my cabinet here with me, how you feel about this and we are going to take that into the decisions we make going forward.”
– With files from Tom Fletcher