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Chief Leads Resurgent Homalco First Nation

Refusing to be ‘swept under the carpet, Chief Blaney won judgment against fish farming.

By Andrew Findlay 5 Apr 2005 |
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Blaney at microphone outside Law Courts

When Darren Blaney strode into downtown Vancouver’s courtroom 51 in January, he was thinking about Church House Bay, his birthplace near the head of Bute Inlet.

Though the clapboard church and houses of that abandoned native village sit vacant, slowly being reclaimed by the wind and rain, the site lies at the centre of a resurgent Homalco First Nation. Blaney, 46 years old and energetic, is the Homalco chief. He is taking on the B.C. government and one of the largest fish farming companies in the world, claiming that his people have been ignored when it comes to deciding where, when and how to site fish farms in their traditional waters.

The court proceedings that brought Blaney to Vancouver in January marked only the latest battleground in that fight. It began in 2002 when Marine Harvest, a subsidiary of Dutch multinational Nutreco, hashed out a deal with Blaney’s predecessor to farm Pacific Spring salmon in Church House Bay, promising jobs and economic opportunities for the Homalco.

According to Blaney, just one band member is currently employed at the farm.

Battled Atlantic salmon plan

From the outset, the deal was not popular among most Homalco who shared concerns about the threat of sea lice, pollution and disease to the wild salmon that ply their ancestral waterways from the Southgate, Orford and Homathko rivers in Bute Inlet out to the open ocean. Last April, claiming that it was unable to farm Spring salmon profitably, Marine Harvest applied to the provincial government for a license that would allow them to restock the farm with controversial Atlantic salmon. The Homalco first heard about the application on July 20, 2004. According to Blaney, they spent the fall trying without success to get more information about what if any specific “fish health management plan” the government and Marine Harvest had to mitigate fish escapes, the spread of sea lice and damage to the marine environment from fish waste.

On Dec.17, 2004, literally hours before the band office was to close for Christmas, the Homalco were blindsided with news from the government that Marine Harvest's application had been approved a week earlier. While band council members were making holiday plans, the farm was being re-stocked with Atlantics.

Blaney responded swiftly by asking the courts for an injunction to block Marine Harvest from introducing Atlantics to Church House claiming that the government had failed to adequately consult the Homalco and address concerns about the environmental impacts.

On December 24, in a landmark decision the B.C. Supreme Court granted an interim injunction, putting the brake’s on Marine Harvest’s plans for Church House Bay, and ordered a judicial review of the approval.

Marine Harvest dutifully appealed but the BC Court of Appeal upheld the decision. Now a microscope has been focused on how the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries goes about approving controversial fish farms.

Injunction keyed off Haida decision

The injunction was significant for a couple of reasons. It was the first to be based on last November’s Supreme Court of Canada decision involving the Haida that said government’s must consult First Nations before allowing resource development that might impinge on aboriginal rights and title. But beyond legal matters, it was also a determined move by the Homalco people struggling to assert their interests and be heard by the mandarins in Victoria who are keen to promote fish farming as the economic saviour of the West Coast.

“I’ve been getting all kinds of calls from other First Nations who are having to deal with fish farms,” Blaney says. “A lot of our people remember fishing and clam digging around Church House. We had to ask do we want to risk our aboriginal rights so one band member can make $10/hour at the fish farm? This deal got arranged with the previous chief but there was no benefit to the band. I don’t want our youth to be just reading about the way things used to be.”

In many ways the band’s challenge to fish farms in Church House has marked a turning point for the Homalco as they attempt to rebuild a community still recovering from European contact and attempting to reconnect youth to their environment and culture.

Chief a product of residential school At age 13, Blaney left Church House Bay and was sent to residential school in Sechelt. He graduated in 1978, then went on to attend Langara College. After working for several years in the bush on tree spacing jobs, he signed on with the Native Court Workers and Counselling Association of B.C. in Vancouver. He says in his mid-20s he was drinking heavily, and risked descending into an alcoholic fog. But he remembered what his grandmother told him years before. “If you drink you won’t amount to anything.”

Blaney hasn’t touched a drop for 22 years.

After living in Vancouver for 18 years he decided to return to Vancouver Island with a clear idea that he wanted to do something to help his people. He served six years as a band councilor and was elected chief in 2002. It’s been a busy first term.

Though the fight for control of Church House Bay occupies much of his time these days, other fundamental problems tear at the fabric of Homalco culture years after the last residential school shut down, a dark legacy that still haunts the Homalco.

“Our people don’t know how to be parents, there’s a lot of drinking and drugs. The residential system spawned many abuses,” Blaney says.

“None of our kids have gone on to university and we had one kid in the last few years who graduated and he was illiterate. There was a grade 8 kid who couldn’t spell his name and it only had four letters,” Blaney says. “They’re pushing us through the system but we need role models.”

In an effort to address this education deficit, the Homalco want to create their own grade 1-7 school on the reserve on the outskirts of Campbell River.

The Homalco need educated and motivated people within their own ranks, says Blaney. Otherwise, a $10/hour job at a fish farm in Church House Bay may seem like an attractive opportunity, no matter the risk to wild food fisheries and the marine environment.

Victory under his belt

The judicial review ground along for two weeks as the judge heard submissions from lawyers representing the Homalco and the government. It quickly became clear that the Church House approval was fraught with procedural missteps and oversights. The Homalco have for two years claimed they were not adequately consulted when the fish farm license was first granted in 2002. Apparently the judge agreed.

On a sunny afternoon on March 3 Chief Blaney strode out of the same Vancouver courtroom with another victory under his belt. The Supreme Court of British Columbia had just announced its decision in favour of the Homalco, effectively halting fish farm operations at Church House until both Marine Harvest and the provincial government open meaningful dialogue with the band. The judgment was far from an outright condemnation of fish farming however it unequivocally acknowledged that the Homalco have a legitimate claim to Church House and that they must be involved in decisions affecting this territory. The judge went on to say that the ministry of agriculture, fisheries and food “has erred in failing to consult to the extent necessary” with the Homalco.

Just what form this future consultation will take it unknown and was not specified by the judge. Either way it’s a significant victory for the Homalco First Nation and one that could have ripple effects throughout B.C. as other First Nations assert their interests.

“The BC government must learn to listen and act upon, not ignore, the concerns of First Nations, local communities and stakeholders up and down the coast. It's unfortunate that after years of debate we find ourselves addressing the same issues and problems over and over again, essentially on a site by site basis,” says Eric Blueschke, of the conservation group Georgia Strait Alliance, which partnered with the Homalco last year in an effort to keep fish farms out of Bute Inlet.

‘They won’t sweep us under carpet’

As for Chief Blaney he says so far he’s had little contact or correspondence with government or industry since the decision came down a month ago.

“I don’t think government agencies will take us so lightly any more. They won’t be able to sweep us under the carpet,” Blaney says.

And that’s all the Homalco have been asking for since farmed fish first showed up in Church House back in 2002 – to be taken seriously – and the courts have sent a strong message in support of this demand.

Court battles are expensive, especially in light of the other social, education and economic challenges plaguing the Homalco that make demands on limited band resources. However the chief believes it’s worth it. Without asserting control and maintaining a connection to their traditional territory, the Homalco are like a rudderless ship.

Blaney says his people can’t afford to “subsidize companies to make money” if it means jeopardizing the resources that generations of his people have relied upon – the ocean and the wild fish that forms the nucleus of their coastal culture.

“I have no problems with trying to reduce pressure on our wild stocks but I’m not convinced that farmed fish don’t pose a risk to our environment,” Blaney says.

Courtenay-based Andrew Findlay is a regular contributor to The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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