Racism on the water

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The Article

Perhaps George Orwell was right when he wrote, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

How else can one explain the existence of a government-promoted, race-based commercial fishery in a country that supposedly worships equality? Or why a group of British Columbia fishermen have had to endure arrest, jail and a costly, decade-long legal battle to try to gain equality in their workplace?

There is nothing “equal” about B.C.‘s commercial fishing policies. Aboriginals from select bands (Musqueam and Tsawassen) have exclusive access to salmon for food and ceremonial purposes from February to November, and priority access to salmon for commercial purposes when salmon levels peak (from June to September).

Throughout the peak season, Department of Fisheries’ officials will open the fishery to all other fishermen (including non-aboriginals and aboriginals from other bands), but only once they are satisfied that conservation and native fishers have been given priority consideration.

To rub even more salt into the wounds of Canadian fishers, natives are also eligible to fish during the open commercial fishery and approximately 90% of the salmon caught for food and ceremonial purposes is actually sold illegally for commercial profit.

In other words, Canada’s race-based fishing problem isn’t about giving aboriginals special rights to fish for food or ceremonial purposes. It’s about giving natives exclusive access to Canada’s commercial fishery.

That’s why fisher John Michael Kapp and fishing groups from across Canada went to the Supreme Court of Canada this month, asking it to strike down the ill-conceived 1992 government policy that implemented race-based fishing and initiated the management of B.C.‘s commercial fishery through the lens of native rights.

The politics are said to stem from the 1992 Charlottetown Accord when, in an effort to gain native support, then-prime minister Brian Mulroney proposed the idea of aboriginal (race-based) self-government. An unfortunate spin-off was the immediate creation of a special commercial fishery for B.C. The policy has yet to be rectified by subsequent governments, although Prime Minister Stephen Harper has declared his opposition to a racially segregated fishery and promised action. That was 18 months ago.

Since the policy’s implementation, more than 10 million salmon have mysteriously “disappeared” as they travelled to their spawning grounds. In contrast, only one million salmon (total) were classified as “missing” in the previous 50 years.

A tremendous financial disparity has developed among fishers (based on race). This has increasingly forced non-aboriginals, as well as aboriginals who don’t belong to the favoured bands, out of the fishery.

B.C.‘s fishing industry has historically been a multicultural affair. Approximately 60% are Canadians of Japanese, Vietnamese and European descent, while the remaining 40% are aboriginals. The irony is rich: Government intervention has transformed the fishing industry, once a leader in the integration of races, into a leader in resurrecting policies for racial segregation.

It’s not that the governments and courts don’t recognize that there is a problem. It’s that they choose to subjugate Canada’s principles of equality to what they term “a higher social purpose.”

Lawyers arguing for the continuation of race-based fishing told the Supreme Court that exclusive access to fish constitutes a cultural benefit that must be maintained to preserve the dignity and self-respect of natives. They argued that Section 35 of the Charter of Rights (providing special rights to natives) should override Section 15 (which provides equality rights for all), and that the court should endorse discrimination based on the immutable characteristic of race.

If all this sounds familiar, it’s because Canadians have been here before. In the 1920s, racist government policies put half of all Japanese fisherman out of work. The government reacted to a rapid influx of Japanese fishers (called “the yellow peril”) by creating policies that restricted access, and prevented them from using motors on their boats. Fortunately, in 1928, the Supreme Court ruled the policies were discriminatory and declared Canada’s fishery to be open to all.

In hindsight, it’s a horrific example of discrimination and one that should never have been repeated.

If the government is willing to toss aside Charter rights when they conflict with what it perceives as a greater goal (in this case, appeasing the natives), who knows what other goals may one day be declared as above the Charter?

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