Wán̓aí (herring) chronicles
An interactive version of this timeline is available at Ocean School - Herring chronicles.
The Haíɫzaqv (Heiltsuk) have had a relationship with the Pacific herring since time immemorial.
Herring are a cultural keystone species for the Haíɫzaqv. The Haíɫzaqv continue to reclaim their right to fish and manage herring in their traditional territory. Explore the history and relationship between the Haíɫzaqv and herring over time.
About this timeline
This timeline was created for the Ocean School Harvest module. The Harvest module was filmed and developed on unceded Haíɫzaqv homelands and waterways. We are sincerely grateful to the Haíɫzaqv Nation for allowing Ocean School to be guests in their territory, for sharing their stories and knowledge, and for collaborating with us for this module.
This timeline was informed by our collaborators in the Haíɫzaqv Nation, and inspired by Pacific Herring: Past, Present and Future,1 Húy̓at Timeline,2 and Gauvreau et al. (2017).3 These events are grouped in 4 historical stages identified in the 1996 Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples.4 The summaries of each stage are adapted from Colonialism and its Impacts, by FemNorthNet (2016).5
- Stage 1: Separate Worlds (up to 1500 AD)
Indigenous and non-Indigenous societies formed on their own and away from each other. Each developed their own cultural traditions and government.
- Stage 2: Contact and Cooperation (1500 to 1870)
Indigenous and non-Indigenous groups generally tolerated and respected each other. They traded and formed military alliances. Indigenous populations shrank due to disease, while the non-Indigenous population grew.
- Stage 3: Displacement and Assimilation (1871 to 1969)
The non-Indigenous population becomes larger and more dominant. Indigenous lives and lands are no longer respected. Policies force Indigenous peoples into the Canadian mainstream.
- Stage 4: Negotiation and Renewal (1970 to present)
Indigenous peoples win Supreme Court victories, and non-Indigenous society begins to recognize the harmful effects of assimilation policies. Leaders try to reopen dialog and heal wounds between both societies. Indigenous leaders regain some autonomy.
Haíɫzaqvḷa is the language of the Haíɫzaqv. Wherever possible, we have used the Haíɫzaqv way of writing down names and important words. We did not modify spellings quoted from newspapers and other sources, so you may see words like “Heiltsuk” used in this timeline.
When we describe Canadian laws, you will see words like “Indian” used to describe Indigenous peoples in Canada. Many Canadian laws still use this word because Indigenous peoples were referred to as Indians in the Indian Act of 1876. Please be aware that using the word “Indian” to refer to Indigenous peoples is considered offensive by many people.
Origin stories and oral histories show that the herring played a major role in Haíɫzaqv life for generations. 6
Archeologists have found evidence of trade relations between the Haíɫzaqv and other tribes dating back over 14 000 years.7
Archaeological evidence shows that herring played an important role in Haíɫzaqv diet for millennia.
“Originally our ancestors occupied more than 50 major villages spread across our vast territory.” 8
“Our first recorded contact with European explorers occurred when Haíɫzaqv Chiefs visited Captain George Vancouver’s ship anchored in Restoration Cove in early 1793.” - Heiltsuk Tribal Council9
"In 1833 the Hudson’s Bay Company established Fort McLoughlin, a heavily fortified fur trading post, on what is now McLoughlin Bay on Campbell Island. The Heiltsuk already had a well-established trading network on the coast, but the Hudson’s Bay Company sought to supplant Indigenous people as middlemen in the fur trade wherever possible."10
"William Fraser Tolmie, a physician and fur trader working for the Hudson Bay Company, was stationed in Bella Bella in the 1800’s. In his journal he documented trade between the Heiltsuk First Nation and neighbouring nations. Tolmie’s journal entry served as key evidence in R. v. Gladstone 1996." 11
Haíɫzaqv population down to 128 people from over 20,000.
"In the winter of 1862-3 a devastating smallpox epidemic took a massive toll on the Heiltsuk population across our territory. Many villages were wiped out entirely, and most others didn't have enough people left to sustain them. Survivors from the various Heiltsuk tribes gradually amalgamated at Bella Bella, which is centrally located in Heiltsuk territory."12
Devastated by epidemics brought on by colonization, the Haíɫzaqv population reached a critical low. In the past there were 23 villages and 12 major tribes, but their communities suffered incredible losses. The last 128 Haíɫzaqv people came together to form one amalgamated nation at Q̓ḷc̓. Today there are 5 major tribes, and 2400 Haíɫzaqv members.
Kelly Brown is the Director of the Heiltsuk Integrated Resource Management Department. Hear him speak about what happened to Indigenous responsibilities when Canada was formed. Watch the video on YouTube.
KELLY BROWN: We've been here as a Haíɫzaqv people for 14,000 years, and as the resources came, our people grew a relationship with those resources.
We talk a little about ǧvi̓ḷás, which is our laws. It's basically a set of rules about how we need to treat our resources and that the resources shouldn't be overharvested. It should be managed properly, and that if you take a little and leave a lot, you are following that law.
So there's never an overharvesting of any one resource. That's how much respect we have for those resources.
A lot of the responsibilities for jurisdiction or laws and authority, or the power to make decisions, were assumed by Canada, when they formed Canada. And so a lot of our responsibilities were stripped from us.
The first non-Indigenous commercial harvest of Pacific herring began when the federal government of Canada’s Department of Fisheries (DFO) opened a bait fishery.
The herring were harvested to sell as bait for larger fish.
Potlatches are the foundation of Haíɫzaqv spiritual, cultural, governmental, and legal systems. They are large, public events where important business is conducted and witnessed by the community.
For thousands of years, the Haíɫzaqv reviewed and agreed about ǧvi̓ḷás laws during the potlatch, a time of feasting, ceremony, and law-making. At the potlatch, people would agree on access rights and discuss how to harvest the herring.
“The potlatch [...] was outlawed by the federal government of Canada from the late nineteenth century until 1951.”13
"The Residential School System was part of a government policy of assimilation of First Nations. [...] Native languages were forbidden at these schools, even though it was the only language many children spoke. Many children were subjected to psychological, physical and sexual abuse while attending these schools."14
The former St. Michael's Residential School Building in Alert Bay was turned over to 'Namgis First Nation and renamed ‘Namgis House in 2003.
The purpose of the Fisheries Act was to manage and control Canadian marine resources. This law was imposed on the Haíɫzaqv in an attempt to replace ǧvi̓ḷás (Haíɫzaqv laws). The Fisheries Act disregarded Haíɫzaqv fishing rights and sustainable harvest traditions. 15
Despite the Fisheries Act, Haíɫzaqv continued to harvest and adhere to ǧvi̓ḷás.
Kelly Brown is the Director of the Heiltsuk Integrated Resource Management Department. Hear him speak about the law that was passed in 1913. Watch the video on YouTube.
KELLY BROWN: Well it started in 1913, where there was a law passed that no Indigenous person could hold a commercial fishing license.
During the commercial salmon fishing days, where there's many commercial fishing vessels here, a lot of our own people were operating those commercial boats that were owned by companies. Because we weren't allowed to hold a license as Indigenous people in the '50s and '60s. And so we didn’t have access to licenses until the early '70s.
For thousands of years, the Haíɫzaqv traded whole herring as a commercial commodity, and carefully managed the stocks. The federal government opened a herring reduction fishery—a fishery that processes the catch into fishmeal and fish oil. 30 years of the herring reduction fishery pushed the herring stocks to the point of collapse in 1967.16
First Nations people started to potlatch again, revitalizing trade between First Nations.
When visiting another community for a potlatch, people would often exchange large amounts of goods, such as herring roe.
The federal government noticed increased trade of herring roe among First Nations after the potlatch ban was lifted.
DFO decided to criminalize this trade by calling it unlicensed commercial trade.
The Indian Act imposed the band council system on the Haíɫzaqv. Before the Indian Act, the Haíɫzaqv had a long-standing governance system, composed of yi̓ ím̓ás (hereditary chiefs), wiw̓úm̓aqs (women of high rank), and ǧvi̓ḷás.
Today, the Heiltsuk Tribal Council and yi̓ ím̓ás Council strive to govern the nation together.17
The federal government began closing fisheries across British Columbia to allow the herring to recover.
“By the 1960s, this huge “kill fishery” had taken billions of fish and pretty much wiped out stocks to the point that the entire fishery was closed in British Columbia between 1969 and 1972.” 18
“Populations rebounded sufficiently, at least according to government and industry, to warrant reopening herring fishing in the 1970s." 19
In 1980, Canada recognized the Haíɫzaqv right to have a voice in the management of marine resources.
However, this recognition was largely symbolic. The Haíɫzaqv were invited to the table as stakeholders, but not as decision-makers. The Haíɫzaqv played an advisory role that was largely ignored.
Two Haíɫzaqv First Nation brothers, William and Donald Gladstone, were arrested and charged for selling roe on kelp without a license.
"Ron Sparrow was arrested for fishing on the Fraser River with a drift net that was longer than the length specified by the band’s food fishing license. [...] The Department of Fisheries argued that Aboriginal rights to fish had been extinguished by the detailed regulations contained in the Fisheries Act. The Supreme Court of Canada found that Aboriginal rights had not been extinguished simply because they were regulated in great detail, and it rejected the “public interest” justification for limiting Native fisheries as vague and unworkable.”20
In the Sparrow case, the Supreme Court decided that Canada must respect Aboriginal rights to fish for food. This case set the criteria that Canada can only limit Indigenous fishing rights if there is a real environmental conservation need.
The Gladstone brothers were members of the Haíɫzaqv Band charged with attempting to sell herring roe on kelp without a licence. The Gladstone brothers argued that they were exercising a pre-existing right to fish for commercial purposes.
The Gladstone decision affirmed the Haíɫzaqv commercial right to harvest and sell herring roe on kelp. It also set out the "doctrine of priority”. The doctrine of priority set out the priority of access, which was: conservation, food/social/ceremonial use, Haíɫzaqv commercial use, and Canadian commercial use.
This is unique in Canadian law because it grants the ecosystem the right to herring above all else. 21
In the Van der Peet case, the Supreme court described 10 criteria to use to judge whether or not a traditional practice like fishing should be considered an Aboriginal right. The key idea is that practices that were integral to an Indigenous culture before European contact should be protected.
Critics of the decision argued that the criteria are unfair, because culture changes over time. 22
Delgamuukw v. British Columbia is important to Canadian law because it changed how people understand First Nations land rights in Canada.
The Gitxsan and Wet'suwet'en peoples filed the case to claim their right to govern their territory. At this time, Canadian law had never fully defined what rights Indigenous people have to their ancestral lands.
A key definition from the decision is Aboriginal title. In the Canadian legal system, Aboriginal title is the right of an Aboriginal group to use and make decisions about their ancestral land or territory. This decision also states that the government has a duty to consult with Indigenous people. This had not existed before. However, the duty to consult was not defined, and was largely misunderstood for many years. 23
The Heiltsuk Tribal Council filed the Germyn Lawsuit against Canada for preventing the Haíɫzaqv from fully practicing their Aboriginal right to harvest and sell herring roe on kelp. This right had been affirmed in the Gladstone Decision.
In 2004, Haíɫzaqv and Kitasoo Xaixas Nations protesters blockaded a fleet of commercial herring boats, and protested at a DFO office. The protesters explained that the roe-herring fishery kills the spawning fish to extract the eggs, and was taking too many fish.
"The commercial herring seine fishery will seriously impact the ability of Heiltsuk people to practice their Aboriginal Right [...] We cannot allow the short-term interests of the commercial fishery to jeopardize the long-term rights the Heiltsuk have to harvest spawn on kelp.” - Reg Moody 24
Read more about the protest at http://www.firstnations.de/media/04-1-herring-roe.pdf
The Guardian Watchmen program was created to protect the health of cultural and natural values of Haíɫzaqv traditional territory, and to sustainably manage its resources.
The Haíɫzaqv Nation helped to create the Coastal Guardian Watchmen network in 2005. It is a nine-member alliance of First Nations who live along the West Coast. They collaborate to monitor the health of the Coast. 25
There was not enough herring for anyone to fish. The Haíɫzaqv had been warning for a decade about the collapse of the fishery.
This closure is significant because DFO still opened the Haíɫzaqv roe on kelp fishery. However, the Haíɫzaqv voted not to fish, for the health of the herring stock.
"HIRMD was established in January 2010 as an integrated approach to stewardship and decision-making related to land, water and cultural resources within Heiltsuk Territory." 26
"We write this letter to inform commercial herring fishermen of these issues. Our Hemas (chiefs), community members and fishermen have affirmed to DFO that a commercial herring fishery is not welcome on the central coast," wrote the Heiltsuk Tribal Council. 27
"Heiltsuk leaders occupied a DFO office near Bella Bella, B.C. on Sunday to dispute the government’s decision to open seine herring fisheries on the central coast." 28
KELLY BROWN: The Heiltsuk Integrated Resource Management Department was established in 2010, and since then we’ve taken responsibility to be more involved in how decisions are made for the herring. In 2015 we closed the DFO office on Denny Island to make a point that there was too much herring being taken out of the water, and the herring stocks were too low to allow them to do that.
The Haíɫzaqv and the Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) developed the first written co-management plan, titled the Integrated Fisheries Management Plan for Pacific Herring.
Key improvements to the management plan include:
1. Improved abundance forecasts.
2. Lower harvest rate. The harvest rate has lowered from 10% to 7% to allow continued recovery time for stocks.
3. Important sac roe fishery closures.
4. Heiltsuk observer on DFO boats. Recognizing the Nation’s stewardship rights and responsibilities, the DFO will have a Heiltsuk observer onboard the DFO vessel at all times during the herring fishery. 29
Kelly Brown is the Director of the Heiltsuk Integrated Resource Management Department. Hear him speak about how co-management works. Watch the video on YouTube.
KELLY BROWN: So we have a herring working group made up of numerous well-versed, experienced fishermen that help to put together a joint management plan. Every year we negotiate that plan with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans that are delegated to come and negotiate with us.
The final decision is made in Ottawa, where they have no understanding of what a herring might be. They’ve never been to the area.
And so we’ve made some invitations to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and industries to come back to Bella Bella, to come and share and collaborate on having a conversation around how we can make sure that the stocks stay healthy enough where our culture can continue to thrive.
But I think that over the next little while, if you continue to pay attention to Indigenous matters, you’ll find that the Haíɫzaqv people are going to have more responsibility and say in how the resources are managed, and how decisions are made.
“Fisheries and Oceans Canada has agreed to cancel this year’s commercial roe herring fishery on B.C.’s central coast, citing the federal government’s commitment to reconciliation with First Nations." 30
In 2006, the Haíɫzaqv and Canada agreed to negotiate the issues in the Germyn Lawsuit and Gladstone Decision including the right of Haíɫzaqv to access herring for food, social, and ceremonial and commercial uses.
In 2019, the Haíɫzaqv and Canada finally agreed to settle the Germyn Lawsuit for $75 million dollars. This only covers the infringement by DFO of the Haíɫzaqv right to harvest and sell roe on kelp.
So I just finished the RELAW Project, the Revitalizing Indigenous Law for Land, Air and Water, where we attempted to summarize our at least 14,000 years of Ǧviḷás, which are Haíɫzaqv laws, and we only focused on laws relating to the ocean. And from that summary of legal principles,we used that to inform the creation of the first ever Indigenous-led Oceans Act.
So the Oceans Act that we’ve created will apply to not only our own people, but also anyone who is interacting with our territory in the ocean area at all. So, all of our Ǧviḷás and things that we expect of our own behaviour will apply to non-Haíɫzaqv people as well. And it’s all based out of respect. It’s all based out of having a reciprocal relationship with where we live, and understanding that we take care of everything around us. And I think that that’s the most important thing, is that, you know, we’re not just resource extractors, that we take care of our territory and our home as best we can. And that’s just how it’s always been.
1 Hakai Program, “Timeline: Pacific Herring,” Pacific Herring: Past, Present and Future, accessed 2020, http://www.pacificherring.org/timeline.
2 Heiltsuk Nation, Simon Fraser University, University of Victoria, and Greencoast Media. “Húy̓at Timeline.” Húy̓at. Accessed 2020. http://www.hauyat.ca/timeline.html.
3 Alisha Gauvreau, Dana Lepofsky, Murray Rutherford and Mike Reidt, “‘Everything Revolves around the Herring’: the Heiltsuk–Herring Relationship through Time,” Ecology and Society (The Resilience Alliance, April 26, 2017), https://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol22/iss2/art10/.
4 Library and Archives Canada, “Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples,” Library and Archives Canada, November 2, 2016, https://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/discover/aboriginal-heritage/royal-commission-aboriginal-peoples/Pages/final-report.aspx.
5 FemNorthNet, “Colonialism and its Impacts,” Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women, 2016, http://fnn.criaw-icref.ca/images/userfiles/files/LWM3_ColonialismImpacts.pdf.
6 Heiltsuk Cultural Education Centre, 2020. http://hcec.ca/index.php/home-page/.
7 Roshini Nair, “14,000-Year-Old Archeological Find Affirms Heiltsuk Nation's Ice Age History | CBC News,” CBC news, March 30, 2017, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/archeological-find-affirms-heiltsuk-nation-s-oral-history-1.4046088.
8 “History,” Heiltsuk Nation, 2015, http://www.heiltsuknation.ca/about-2/history/.
9“Heiltsuk Nation Signs Declaration That Sets Stage for Reconciliation.,” Heiltsuk Nation Signs Declaration That Sets Stage for Reconciliation. Heiltsuk Tribal Council, October 28, 2015, https://www.firstpeopleslaw.com/database/files/library/HeiltsukDeclaration_102815a.pdf.
10 “History,” Heiltsuk Nation, 2015, http://www.heiltsuknation.ca/about-2/history/.
Image: “A Brief History of HBC,” HBC Heritage - A Brief History of HBC, 2016, http://www.hbcheritage.ca/history/company-stories/a-brief-history-of-hbc.
11 Hakai Program, “Timeline: Pacific Herring,” Pacific Herring: Past, Present and Future, accessed 2020, http://www.pacificherring.org/timeline.
Image: Joseph Gaston and George H Himes, Wikimedia Commons, 2009, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:William_Fraser_Tolmie.png.
12 “History,” Heiltsuk Nation, 2015, http://www.heiltsuknation.ca/about-2/history/.
Image: “Our History, Our Health,” Our History, Our Health (First Nations Health Authority, 2020), https://www.fnha.ca/wellness/our-history-our-health.
13 “About Us,” About Us (Heiltsuk Health Centre), accessed 2020, http://www.heiltsukhealth.com/about.
Image: Courtesy of the Wágḷísḷa (Bella Bella) community
14 “About Us,” About Us (Heiltsuk Health Centre), accessed 2020, http://www.heiltsukhealth.com/about.
Image: Iwona Erskine-Kellie, Wikipedia, February 10, 2003, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St._Michael%27s_Indian_Residential_School_(Alert_Bay)#/media/File:StMichaels-ResidentialSchool-AlertBay.jpg.
15 Image: DFO Crest, Wikipedia, 2017, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29362165.
16 Image: “Herring Roe,” In Their Words: The Story of BC Packers, accessed 2020, http://www.intheirwords.ca/english/canning_herring_roe.html.
17 Image: “Tribal Council Office,” Heiltsuk Nation, 2015, https://www.heiltsuknation.ca/departments/tribal-council-office/.
18Ian Gill, “Roe, Rights and Reconciliation: The Heiltsuk Reclaim a Fishery,” The Tyee (The Tyee, September 5, 2018), https://thetyee.ca/News/2018/09/05/Heiltsuk-Reclaim-Fishery/.
19 Ian Gill, “Roe, Rights and Reconciliation: The Heiltsuk Reclaim a Fishery,” The Tyee (The Tyee, September 5, 2018), https://thetyee.ca/News/2018/09/05/Heiltsuk-Reclaim-Fishery/.
20 “Aboriginal Fisheries in British Columbia,” indigenousfoundations, 2009, https://indigenousfoundations.arts.ubc.ca/aboriginal_fisheries_in_british_columbia/.
Image: “R. v. Sparrow Press,” indigenousfoundations, 2009, https://indigenousfoundations.arts.ubc.ca/r-v-sparrow-press/.
21 Image text: Supreme Court of Canada, “Supreme Court Judgments - R. v. Gladstone,” Supreme Court of Canada, December 3, 2012, https://scc-csc.lexum.com/scc-csc/scc-csc/en/item/1409/index.do.
22 “Van der Peet case,” indigenousfoundations, 2009, https://indigenousfoundations.arts.ubc.ca/van_der_peet_case/.
Image: Dig Deeper, July 12, 2017, Wikipedia, July 12, 2017, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Supreme_Court_of_Canada#/media/File:Supreme_court_of_Canada_in_summer.jpg.
23 Text and Image: Andrew Kurjata, “20 Years Ago, This Court Case Changed the Way Canadians Understood Indigenous Rights | CBC News,” CBC news (CBC/Radio Canada, December 12, 2017), https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/delgamuukw-vs-british-columbia-20-years-rights-titles-1.4440703.
24 “Heiltsuk,” First Nations: Land Rights and Environmentalism in British Columbia, accessed 2020, http://www.firstnations.de/fisheries/heiltsuk.htm.
25 “Coastal Guardian Watchmen Support,” Coastal First Nations, December 19, 2018, https://coastalfirstnations.ca/our-environment/programs/coastal-guardian-watchmen-support/.
26 “Heiltsuk Integrated Resource Management Department Stewardship Arm of the Heiltsuk Nation.,” HIRMD.ca, 2020, http://www.hirmd.ca/.
27 Debora Steek, “Haida, Heiltsuk, and Nuu-Chah-Nulth Nations Unite in Opposition to Commercial Herring Fisheries ,” Ha-Shilth-Sa: Canada's Oldest First Nation's Newspaper, February 3, 2014, https://hashilthsa.com/news/2014-02-03/haida-heiltsuk-and-nuu-chah-nulth-nations-unite-opposition-commercial-herring-fisher.
28 Text and video: “VIDEO: Heiltsuk Declare Victory in Herring Dispute,” The Tyee (The Tyee, April 2, 2015), https://thetyee.ca/News/2015/04/02/Heiltsuk-Herring-Dispute-Ends/.
29 “Heiltsuk, DFO announce major changes to management plan for Pacific herring.” Coastal First Nations: Great Bear Initiative, January 18, 2016. https://coastalfirstnations.ca/heiltsuk-dfo-announce-major-changes-to-management-plan-for-pacific-herring/.
30 Randy Shore, “DFO Shuts down Herring Fishery, Citing First Nations Reconciliation,” Times Colonist, March 5, 2018, https://www.timescolonist.com/news/b-c/dfo-shuts-down-herring-fishery-citing-first-nations-reconciliation-1.23191936.
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