The WLC has begun a community-led process to reclaim the traditional fishing territory. 

Brief Historical Overview of W̱SÁNEĆ Mariculture

For thousands of years, W̱SÁNEĆ existence, economy, cultural practices, and laws revolved around the ebbs and flows of the Salish Sea and its bounty of fish and resources. Traditionally, families served as custodians of the SX̱OLE (Reef Net) and related fishing and harvesting locations. As such, the responsibility of managing fishing rights and looking after the health of the sea belonged to the W̱SÁNEĆ people.

However, since the assertion of Canada’s authority over fisheries, the W̱SÁNEĆ people’s ability to continue traditional fishing, economic, and care-taking practices have been severely compromised and even criminalized. In the 1910s, the use of reef nets was outlawed in Canada, causing irrevocable damage to the W̱SÁNEĆ way of life. These colonial assertions are in direct violation of the rights enshrined in the 1852 Douglas Treaties, which include the right “to carry on our fisheries as formerly.”

Today, policies and regulations imposed by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) still prevent W̱SÁNEĆ people from carrying out traditional fishing practices as formerly. These restrictions continue to result in health decline among W̱SÁNEĆ communities along with substantial economic, social, and cultural loss.

The Future of the W̱SÁNEĆ Fishery

At the WLC, Member First Nations–Tsartlip, Tsawout, and Tseycum–are undertaking exploratory discussions with Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada (CIRNAC) to assess the potential for reconciliation in seven priority topics, the W̱SÁNEĆ fishery being one of them.

This commitment is outlined in a Letter of Understanding the parties signed in 2019, where the stakeholders agree “to explore new ways to achieve lasting reconciliation and are committed to renewing and strengthening a nation-to-nation relationship, based on respect/ÁTOL, co-operation/ĆȺINEUEL, partnership/HIWESTEL, and the recognition of rights. The concepts of EN ŚW̱IST E TŦEN S,HELI, SKÁLS, ĆELÁṈEN, W̱SÁNEĆ,EȽ, and NEHIMET form an integral part of these discussions.”

In preparation for these discussions, the WLC drafted a Fisheries Position Paper that will be used in discussions with colonial bodies. Presently, the draft includes an overview of W̱SÁNEĆ history, traditional use of the land, the W̱SÁNEĆ fishing territories, community experiences fishing and with DFO enforcement, case law supporting W̱SÁNEĆ rights, infringements on rights, and losses W̱SÁNEĆ communities have experienced due to the severely compromised sacred relationship with the marine ecosystem. 

In the next stage–and after engaging with the community–the document will include an expression of what the reclamation of the fishery could look like. Joni Olsen, the Policy/Negotiations Analyst at the WLC (and lead on this project) is careful to emphasize that this initiative is not about negotiating W̱SÁNEĆ fishing rights. This project is focused more on implementing those rights that the crown has never accepted, including: reclaiming autonomy in the sea, addressing overfishing, restoring the sacred rights as caretakers, and reinstating commercial fishing rights. 

Joni Olsen shares: “We are people of the sea, it was our economy. What about our rights to our fisheries without the involvement of DFO? This project is concerned with implementing our rights and ensuring that our territories are properly cared for – how others fish, how much they fish, when and where they fish, and with what tools.”

Community Engagement Sessions Upcoming

Olsen continues, “The right ‘to carry on our fisheries as formerly’ goes far beyond securing individual rights to harvest marine resources. X̱ALS gave us the responsibility to look after our relatives and the places in which they live, that was our law. Current fisheries management breaks W̱SÁNEĆ law. My grandmother used to say that she could walk across the Saanich Inlet on the back of the salmon. They used to be able to spearfish from the land. To fish as formerly is our responsibility to take care of the fishery, it’s in a bad state, how do we move back in as the caretakers?

With these questions in mind, the WLC is beginning the next phase of the project which involves two phases of community engagement: one on one interviews with fishermen and knowledge holders, and open community engagement sessions where all community members can have a say on the work that has been done so far.

The preliminary one-on-one interviews have been completed and the report on this segment of the project will be ready to present to the community and leadership at the end of April. After that, community engagement sessions will be scheduled to collect further information on how the W̱SÁNEĆ feel about their loss of these rights and how they would like to see their broader rights and responsibilities upheld and implemented. 

If you would like to take part in a one on one or family session, please contact Joni at joni.olsen@wsanec.com

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