Campbell put on the spot to do the right thing on Harper and the fishery
- Campbell put on the spot to do the right thing on Harper and the fishery
Tuesday, August 01, 2006
One of B.C.'s top aboriginal leaders is calling on Premier Gordon Campbell to intervene directly with Prime Minister Stephen Harper in a controversy over the salmon fishery.
"I am writing this open letter to you seeking your assistance," Shawn Atleo, B.C. regional chief of the Assembly of First Nations, says in a July 22 missive.
"I am asking you personally, and in my capacity as regional chief, to speak to the prime minister about the negative consequences of his words and tactics."
The offending words were published last month. "Let me be clear," Harper wrote. "We will . . . oppose racially divided fisheries programs."
The offending tactic was that the words were included, almost as an aside, in a letter from Harper to the Calgary Herald.
"The manner chosen to deliver an announcement of such major change to federal fisheries policy by the prime minister is antiquated, disappointing and disconcerting," Atleo wrote.
"This startling policy change, announced without warning or consultation in, of all places, an Alberta newspaper, has understandably provoked strong reactions both from first nations and non-first nations citizens."
Those strong reactions add an element of urgency and that, as Atleo sees it, is where Campbell can play a constructive role.
"I am encouraged by your demonstrated understanding of the critical importance of fisheries to first nations," he wrote.
"I believe with your support we can turn the situation around. . . . I am confident that the prime minister will hear you."
Atleo then proceeded to specifics -- the points he hoped the premier would raise in talking to the prime minister.
He should first advise Harper about the hurtful nature of the language he was using. Complaints about a race-based fishery originate with those who blame aboriginal people for the decline of salmon stocks on the Fraser River. They say the cause is poaching, mostly by aboriginal people.
"Mr. Harper has adopted the exact language used by a few political activists, who for years have campaigned on these unproven allegations of theft," Atleo charged.
"His words are implicitly read in B.C. as a 'code' for 'natives steal fish.'"
It was one thing for activists to say such things. "It is quite another thing for the prime minister of Canada to take up their cause."
The premier could also help lobby for a better way to address the threats -- real and perceived -- to the fishery.
Harper, in his letter to the Calgary paper, promised "a judicial inquiry into the collapse of the Fraser River salmon fishery."
That's a non-starter for Atleo and other native leaders: "The call conjures up images of a judge recommending some form of punishment for past actions."
Natives would prefer a broadly based conference, supported by first nations, senior governments, scientists, fishers and other stakeholders.
"You have eloquently made the case against costly divisive, endless litigation," Atleo reminded Campbell. "Please make that case again to Prime Minister Harper."
Several times, the regional chief made reference to the new relationship, Campbell's 18-month-old initiative to recognize aboriginal title and rights and promote reconciliation and respect.
"We need a new relationship with the federal government and I am optimistic that you can convey this vision to the prime minister," he wrote.
Atleo's letter, which has circulated throughout the first nations community, puts Campbell in a bit of a spot.
Fisheries are a federal responsibility. Ottawa jealously guards its turf. Harper has shown limited interest in B.C.'s innovations on the aboriginal file -- such as the Kelowna accord, concluded last year with the previous federal administration.
Then again, if the premier does not respond favourably to Atleo's entreaties, that could have an impact on his emerging relationship with first nations.
Campbell has reaped a lot of credit for adopting a more progressive stance. Aboriginal leaders now look to him for support on their concerns as well.
Atleo made the point himself in a remarkable ceremony he convened on July 17, just five days before he issued the open letter on the fishery.
Atleo and the members of his Ahousaht First Nation community feted Campbell and bestowed on him an honorary native name.
He's now Chamatook, meaning one who is able to do the right thing and bring harmony, according to the translation provided by the natives.
"It appears on the surface at least, he's travelled the greatest distance," Atleo explained. "He clearly has taken the government through a transformation."
But as well as a tribute, the name was also a statement about native expectations: "The intent is also to push him in the right direction and show him he has our support."
He's got the name. There's the first push. Over to you, Chamatook.
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