Tensions have eased considerably between the recreational fishing sector and First Nations fisheries of the Fraser River.
It has taken years to reach a détente and it’s not by accident.
Chehalis Chief Willie Charlie was shot in the face in 2009 with a pellet gun and his boat was rammed when a drift net and gear became entangled with that of recreational anglers.
It’s a whole different vibe on the water today.
That infamous altercation on the river became a catalyst of sorts for the creation of the volunteer-based Fraser River Peacemakers, who have been working toward conflict resolution on a collaborative basis, focused on stewardship, river safety, and education ever since.
Now the group is being awarded the National Recreational Fisheries Award for 2017.
Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc wrote to the Fraser River Peacemakers last month to say they had been selected.
“The awards were instituted to honour organizations like yours for contributions to the conservation, restoration and enhancement of Canada’s recreational fisheries and their habitat,” reads the minister’s letter dated Nov. 22.
“This 2017 award recognized the important leadership role that the Fraser River Fishery Peacemakers organization has played in contributing to healthy, robust, and cooperative recreational fishing experiences in Western Canada.
“The volunteer work of your membership is exemplary as it has contributed to positive relations with the First Nations harvesters and recreational anglers resulting in a well-managed fishery on the Pacific coast.”
Peacemakers co-founder Rod Clapton, president of the BC Federation of Drift Fishers, called the recognition “very gratifying” for the volunteers.
“It vindicates eight years of hard work,” said Clapton.
They’ve come a long way since tensions were rising with no way to meet in the middle.
“Today we can sit across the table and carry on respectful conversations.
“It proves we can work together, and we have common goals when it comes to preserving a safe, respectful fishery for our respective future generations,” said Clapton.
The Peacemakers do things like advocate for catch monitoring and compliance standards, as well as pushing for safety and river manners while on the water. They’ve earned support from sportfishing groups, B.C. ministries, conservation groups, First Nations, federal agencies and more.
“It’s very encouraging that a federal minister is recognizing that this happening on the ground,” said Peacemakers co-founder Erne Crey.
“We have persisted with very few resources. We’re happy they took notice. Everyone who sits around the Peacemakers table can be proud of this,” said Crey.
Clapton pointed out the atmosphere on the river is “nothing like it was” eight years ago. It was full of hostility.
“There was an awful lot of misinformation circulating,” he said. “As Peacemaker we’ve been able to talk, and gain a much better understanding of each other’s fisheries.”
Stan Goto, a professor at Western Washington University, called the award to Peacemakers “well deserved.”
They’re unique, he said, in that they’re the only organization “in the Salish Sea region devoted to promoting peaceful co-existence” between aboriginal fishers and sports anglers.
“Prior to the founding of Peacemakers, there was no official vehicle for sport fishing groups and First Nations to communicate directly with one another,” said Goto.
For decades, there was some degree of mistrust.
“That began to change when leaders from both sides met to seek common ground,” said Goto.
Enter the Peacemakers.
“It would be hard for me to overstate the significance of having First Nations representatives and sport fishers sitting down at the same table,” the professor noted.
He is doing research in B.C. because he can’t find anything similar in the U.S.
“There is a tremendous need for dialogue between fishing communities, and yet the means for doing so are exceedingly rare. Over the years, Peacemakers members have carefully built a framework of trust and mutual respect.
“Within that framework, they’ve successfully dealt with disputes, river safety, access, and other difficult issues. It’s this long-term commitment to peaceful coexistence that sets Peacemakers apart.”