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Still being told ‘we know what’s best for you.’

Dallas Smith: The future of BC salmon farming could determine future of First Nations rights and economic self-determination.

The federal Liberal government has committed to continue to work with the province of British Columbia and Indigenous communities on a responsible plan to transition from open net-pen salmon farming in coastal British Columbia waters by 2025.”

That ambiguous statement is being interpretated differently by several groups, and while this mandate is vague, what’s been made clear is the government is collecting input from various rightsholders and stakeholders to help develop this transition plan. This includes First Nations working with the salmon farming sector along with those who are not, as well as impacted municipalities, and the sector itself.

Currently, numerous coastal First Nations have agreements with the salmon farming sector in BC – some going back decades, some created recently— and while a few of those Nations might choose to remove the sector from their waters (which is their right as title holders), most of these Nations wish to continue to host farms in their territories.

Most farms in BC operate under some form of benefit-sharing agreement; however, supportive Nations are still unsure whether licences in their territories will be renewed this June by the same government currently asking for their input.

Many First Nations working with the sector met with DFO Minister Joyce Murray on Friday, April 29th to discuss how Nations supportive of salmon farming would like to see the sector move forward in our territories. This meeting was not “consultation,” and due to the extremely short notice of the invite, key leaders could not contribute their voices to a conversation that seriously impacts their communities.

The government should understand that because of our traditional knowledge of our waters and wild salmon, working relationship with the sector, and oversight of salmon farming’s day-to-day operations, we are the main stakeholder to discuss the future of salmon farming in our territories.

For us, the transition process should:

  • Be unique and tailored to individual Nations' values, socio-economic priorities, and regional characteristics, which means DFO should be meeting with each Nation ahead of their 2025 deadline to develop this plan;
  • Encourage the integration of traditional knowledge, Indigenous oversight, and the investment of new technologies; and
  • Develop via a tripartite approach between First Nations rightsholders, the Government of British Columbia, and the Government of Canada.

Unfortunately, our collective takeaway from Minister Murray is that she’s not listening to us nor the experts, and instead is clinging to her pre-conceived notions of removing salmon farming from our territories.

We believe her opinion is influenced by urban activist groups like Wild First rather than reconciliation, science, and our inherent rights as First Nations. This could undermine the entire future of our decision-making abilities as Rightsholder Nations. And if the Minister’s notions don’t evolve, this will drive some of our remotest communities to poverty.

As we advocate for our rights and economic self-determination, there are outsiders trying to take those rights away from us; outsiders like Alexandra Morton who publicly call out respected Indigenous leaders for wishing to pursue partnerships with the salmon farming sector within their traditional territories.

Accusing Chiefs of exchanging money and jobs for the future of wild salmon is a downright attack on the peoples who have treasured and safeguarded wild salmon on this coast for millennia, and who continue to do so today.

It’s another example of the worst kind of colonial attitudes.

Because we trust science over activist rhetoric, we know that salmon farming, when done right and according to our expectations, can bring more good than harm to our territories, and as the overseers of our lands and waters we hold the companies to that. We know there are more pressing reasons why salmon stocks are declining, like overfishing, climate change, urbanization, and damage to watersheds. We know that large ocean-ranching operations in other countries are forcing our salmon to compete for food sources in the North Pacific.

How are these activists helping to solve those issues?

To imply we are “taking money” and therefore “enslaving our Nations” (rather than building economic diversity) is another way of saying we are like children who aren’t competent enough to make good decisions for ourselves. It’s clear from insults like this from outsiders that Indigenous peoples are still seen by some settler activists and eco-colonizers as wards of the state, and they believe others should decide what’s best for our communities.

If the government chooses to listen to outsider voices over our own in these matters, then they are no different. It would mean we have not come very far along the path to reconciliation after all.

To do right by First Nations, the government must respect, understand, and recognize Indigenous rights and title. Only then can they grasp why we fight so hard to reclaim them, and why it is our voices that should be the loudest when it comes to decision-making in our own territories.

This isn’t only about salmon farming – it’s about our rights to make decisions for our territories and communities, regardless of whether in forestry, mining, tourism, fishing, or other sectors. The transition or progress of any of those sectors should be done so in partnership with the Nations in whose territories they operate.

This should be seen as an opportunity for the Canadian and BC governments to sit down with Rightsholder Nations and collectively work together to find the right path forward for Indigenous communities, economic self-determination, and wild salmon.

That would be true reconciliation in action.

Dallas Smith is the spokesperson for the coalition of First Nations for Finfish Stewardship, Tlowitsis Nation