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Canadian Politics: Fishing And A Question Of Leadership

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I came across an article in the most recent edition of The Mohawk Nation Drummer newspaper that was datelined last July. That may sound a bit dated but as the story was dealing with an ongoing situation that faces Native people across Canada the dateline isn’t really all that important.

The article was dealing with the reactions of Assembly Of First Nations Chiefs to a letter to the editor of a newspaper that Prime Minister Stephen Harper wrote last July in regards to the issue of Native fishing rights. Mr. Harper referred to Native fishing rights as “racially divided fishing programs.”

That expression has been used in the past by people who are trying to rouse racial hatred against First Nations people due to their being given the right to hunt and fish out of season. They’re being blamed for everything from the depletion of the Salmon stocks in the Fraser River, to over-fishing off the West coast of Vancouver Island. It is propagated by people like Mr. Harper that they can set up nets whenever they feel like it.

The Supreme Court of Canada’s ruling that guaranteed these rights simply affirmed the original treaties that had been signed by individual tribes with the government over a hundred years ago which allowed them to continue on with all their traditional means of survival, including hunting and fishing.

If they are going to enter into an out of season commercial fishery operation, they have to be able to offer some proof that the tribe had conducted trade with other nations with fish in the past before they can start. The problem is when those original treaties were signed everyone still thought they were dealing with a bottomless barrel of fish scenario.

Dwindling fish stocks have nothing to do with the huge trawlers plying the seas off the West coast for years do they? Nope it’s got to be those pesky natives and racially preferential treatment. They’re out to steal food out of decent, law abiding, Christian, White folk’s mouths with their sneaky rights. They’re ought to be law.

Now obviously Stephen Harper didn’t say anything like that, but as there have been code words utilized by those opposed to minority rights in the past, “race based fisheries” are the ones most guaranteed to make red neck blood boil in Western Canada. Why else would Mr. Harper write a letter about the fisheries to the editor of the Calgary Herald, a city with no fishing industry, but the heartland of Conservative Party of Canada support, save to send some sort of message to his constituents.

This is a lot like his comments on Gay Marriage, where he has sworn to bring in a free vote on the issue in the house of parliament, where anything the government does is meaningless without mounting a court challenge. Like the rights of same sex couples to have civic marriages, native hunting and fishing rights have been guaranteed by the Supreme Court of Canada.

Any act of parliament that runs counter to a ruling of the Supreme Court of Canada isn’t worth the spit of the politician who read it out in the House of Commons. So why does Stephen Harper say he’ll oppose racially divided fishing industries when he knows he can’t do anything about it? So he’s on record as being opposed, and those of like mind will know who they can count on to be sympathetic to their causes.

For me, the issue around his writing the letter isn’t so much the position he’s outlined in the letter, although that is bad enough, but the fact that he wrote the letter in the first place. What is the Prime Minister of Canada doing making policy statements in the Letters to the Editor section of a regional newspaper? He wasn’t even acting as a private citizen expressing an opinion; he said, “we will”. Unless he’s now taken to referring to himself in the third person plural like royalty.

What kind of leader publicly fans the flames of an already volatile situation by implying a linkage between fish stocks depletion and Native fishing rights? He can’t be so unaware as to not know there has already been violence and unrest around the issue from both sides in the dispute? Instead of taking a leadership role in trying to find a solution he’s just riling up emotions.

It is interesting to note that in spite of various promises and pleas for patience from the new government’s Minister of Indian affairs on plans for replacing the Kelowna accord, the only announcements the government has made in regards to Native policies have been along the lines of Mr. Harper’s letter to the editor. In spite of any reassuring words to the contrary it really looks like the Conservative Party of Canada is maintaining their old Reform Party platform of “they lost the war, tough luck” on Native issues.

There is no doubt that fish stocks off both coasts of Canada have been horribly depleted. The salmon population making the annual migration in the Fraser River has indeed been reduced substantially. Off the coast of Newfoundland where the Cod have run out, they don’t have any Natives to blame anymore having driven the Beothuk to extinction in the early part of the twentieth century. They use the harp seals as the scapegoat.

Out West they have a better situation because up and down the coast and along the whole path of the Salmon’s run there are native tribes who they can blame for depleting the stocks because of their fishing year round. Nobody seems to think that who knows how many years of continual commercial fishing, an ever increasingly polluted ocean, and river systems’ environments being changed because of erosion and human wastes, could have anything to do with the reduced populations.

We have reached a point in the history of the world where certain species of fish have had their populations fall to dangerously low levels. There have to be bans on fishing for some fish and set levels for how much in a year any one person can catch of others. I don’t care who you are, nobody should be allowed to over fish and destroy a species for money.

But using those circumstances to fan the flame of racial disunity is something low and callous that you’d come to expect from a white supremacist or other divisive organizations. For the Prime Minister of Canada to even begin to walk down that path is irresponsible and reprehensible. The fact that he made these statements in the form of a letter to the editor of a newspaper where he was in no danger of incurring immediate rebuttal and his remarks would be given maximum coverage only compounds the reprehensible nature of his conduct.

A good leader should approach a contentious issue with the idea of minimizing its divisive nature, especially if a solution seems to be a speck somewhere out on the horizon. Stephen Harper seems not to care how deeply he carves rifts between people as he long as he is able to win support for his policies.

It makes me wonder what kind of country he is trying to create; and for who?

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.
  • Andrea

    I agree with your comment on how ridiculous it is that fisheries ministers and industry spokespeople blame fisheries depletion on the harp seals, and now in Nova Scotia, the grey seals. Even the Department of Fisheries and Oceans’ own studies have not shown any real proof that the harp seals are responsible for the cod collapse. Everybody in the fishing industry, in Canada and elsewhere, wants to blame somebody else for their problems instead of taking responsibility. Fishing quotas need to be more restrictive and the fishing industry should stop wasting their resources on blaming marine mammals, such as seals, dolphins or whales. All this fuss by the Canadian government on the recent activity in Europe to ban seal fur is mis-guided. I’d like to see Harper’s government invest the money they spend lobbying for the commercial seal hunt in Europe on real actions that will help fisheries recovery.

  • http://www.booklinker.blogspot.com Deano

    It might be a simplication but the basic ecological rule of thumb would be that if the grey and harp seals were responsible for the cod collapse due to the quantity of cod they consume…would not logically there also be an equivilant drop in the subsequent seal populaton which should now be starving or at least severely stressed?

    The cod fishery has no one to blame but themselves for the short-sighted squandering of an incredible resource….

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