Friction over Fishing Rights in Owen Sound
While living in Owen Sound (1990 – 2001) I became very much involved with the native people of the area. I helped form “Neighbours of Nawash” an organization to help bridge the gap between the “white” population and their aboriginal “hosts” . Farmers’ markets are generally more than just places where producers and consumers meet to exchange money for goods. Shopping is also a social activity where farm and town people mingle. The Owen Sound farmers’ market is just such a scene. Saturday morning at the market was a must for me and my spouse while we lived in the area. Among our purchases was usually some fish, often some of the best smoked fish that I have ever tasted, sold by a native woman from the reserve at Cape Croker. One day, ten years ago, that lovely market became an ugly place. A large group of mostly men who were strangers to the market converged to threaten and intimidate that one lonely native fish saleswoman. Among this crowd drawn largely from the area’s Anglers and Hunters Club was the local MLA, Bill Murdock, well known as an ardent supporter of Premier Mike Harris.
On September 8, 2005 the story of that event was retold by this same woman at an event at the First Nation reserve at Cape Croker. She spoke at the Ipperwash Inquiry before the Honourable Sidney Linden into the incidents of racism that had plagued the area. A group of Native and non-Native people gathered at the Cape, a beautiful peninsula that juts out into Georgian Bay just north of Owen Sound and Wiarton, to tell their stories.
I well remember that morning at the market. Some of us had heard in advance that a “delegation” would visit the market to confront the native fish vendor. A number of us were on hand to surround and protect the woman and her very frightened little daughter. We stood shoulder-to-shoulder to face down the delegation. Arguments started and for a time things looked ugly. Bags of fish guts were thrown and nasty words were yelled at the woman. Later some understandably angry Native men arrived from the reserve to give her support.
Those of us who were sympathetic to the Native people formed an organization known as “Neighbours of Nawash.” It was our intention to create bridges across the gap between Natives and non-Natives in the Grey-Bruce area. Those of the Neighbours” who attended the recent hearing found recalling those incidents of racism very stressful.
The issue of fishing rights has been controversial, not only on Georgian Bay, but also on Lake Huron on the other side of the Bruce Peninsula. The Chippewas of Nawash and their neighbours, the Chippewas of Saugeen, have treaty rights to the fisheries in the area surrounding the Bruce Peninsula. Until 1992, these treaty rights had gone unrecognized by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, who had charged the Nawash with illegal fishing. In 1992 a federal court decision upheld the Nawash fishing rights, and directed the ministry to set up a fisheries policy that had the following priorities: conservation, Chippewa fishing, commercial fishing and sport fishing, in that order. The provincial authorities were not amused and dragged their feet in the matter.
Sport fishing has had a significant impact on Georgian Bay. An annual fish derby, the Salmon Spectacular, brings hundreds of fisherman to the Bay and makes an important contribution to the tourist industry of the region.
At a press conference in August of 1995, on the first day of the derby, Ralph Akawenzie of the Cape Croker reserve announced that the Nawash would watch the fishing during the derby.
“We hope to come up with some very interesting statistics” to back up the idea that “conservation is
a two-way street. It’s not just the native people, it’s everyone,” said Akawenzie.
He stressed that the Nawash band wanted to avoid a confrontation with anglers on the water, while underlining its conservation concerns, and what it regards as the “unregulated” state of sports fishing in Ontario. It was a very tense situation. The Peace Brigade International, an organization concerned with peace and justice, was invited to come and observe. During a previous year’s Salmon Spectacular, a number of incidents were seen by the Nawash as evidence of a violent backlash to their assertion of their fishing rights. Two of their boats were sunk in unexplained circumstances, one was burned down to the hull, several Nawash youth were stabbed in Owen Sound with no charges being laid for ten months, and many yards of nets were lost to vandalism.
This year, on the day the hearing was taking place at Cape Croker, Jim Algie of the Owen Sound Sun Times published a story on the state of the fisheries on the Great Lakes, particularly Lake Huron and Georgian Bay. He told about the precarious state of fish as foreign species were introduced – deliberately as well as accidentally. The Salmon Spectacular depends on seeding Chinook salmon into the waters of the Bay. This is largely carried out by the members of the Fish and Game Club.
Salmon are fun to fish but they also are voracious feeders. They can devour their own weight in fish in a day, thus depleting the indigenous fish population. The Great Lakes Fisheries Commission is looking into ways of enhancing the return of native species. In particular perch, lake herring, chubb and ciscoe. It will be an uphill struggle to restore not only fish, but also to make the waters of the Great lakes ecologically sound. The Native fishers have been highly aware of the fragile state of the fish industry. Unfortunately, their efforts have been largely ignored or derided.
Fishing is a sport, an industry, and an essential livelihood for many who live around Owen Sound. Fishing has also been a flash point for the underlying racism that has so often flared in that area. The sorry story of a posse of white men harassing a Native woman who sold smoked fish is just one incident of many that Ipperwash Inquiry had come to Cape Croker to document.
Hanns F. Skoutajan
(an excerpt from his newest book – Road to Peace)