Gary Spencer is potentially facing charges or fines from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans because of a post on a Facebook page.
In late December of last year, Spencer says he was at the Metlakatla pier, on his way to Prince Rupert to sell extra bags of cockles and clams from a harvest for his family. He says he had about 36 bags worth of seafood from Kitkatla territory, offering his surplus for sale.
That’s when DFO officers caught up with him. They told him they had been monitoring him for a year on the Facebook page, which member use as a marketplace to buy and sell seafood. He got on the DFO’s radar after he posted an ad selling a couple bags of halibut.
Spencer, who lives in Kitkatla, says he doesn’t have a job, and was going to sell six bags of cockles for $25 each for extra Christmas cash. He says for him, and many of the people he knows, the extra cash they bring in selling their surplus harvest is important supplemental income to pay bills, and purchase other items from the store.
The Facebook page itself has almost 2,400 members; with items such as salmon, oolichan grease, seaweed, and cockles for sale. It’s an emporium for north coast seafood, and most of its members are Aboriginals.
Doug McArthur is a professor and the director of the Graduate School of Public Policy at Simon Fraser University, he also has extensive experience working on First Nations issues. McArthur says depending on specific treaties and agreements signed with the federal or provincial governments, selling a harvest collected under the “food, social, and ceremonial” fishery is illegal.
He says while the legality of selling the harvest isn’t in question, the validity of the law can be argued in court.
But he adds that there is a growing sentiment within governments to settle historical wrongs, and it’ll be up to either side to see how far they’re willing to push.
McArthur also notes that the federal government has always taken an hardline when it comes to cracking down on illegal sales, unless prior arrangements have been made, such as with the Nisga’a government. He says the government doesn’t recognize commercial sales as an Aboriginal right due to historical reasons.
Charles Menzies is with the UBC Department of Anthropology. He says evidence doesn’t support the government’s stance that there were no commercial markets in the past prior to European settlement.
Menzies adds that many communities along the coast and into the interior had trade for benefit, rather than a one for one trade.
He traces the restrictions on Aboriginal commercial trade to the colonial government’s policy to create an unequal commercial playing field to favour non-Aboriginals.
This grey market is economically important to many communities, which often have poor economic prospects. He adds the additional economic income means better socio-economic indicators all around for the sellers, even if the total economic value isn’t that high.
Menzies says the prohibition against Aboriginal commercial sales should be challenged, but says court challenges can be prohibitively expensive.
Gary Spencer in the meantime says DFO has offered him a choice of going to court to fight charges of illegal sales or to go through the restorative justice process. Spencer say his family wants him to fight the charges, and he says has approached the Gitxaala First Nation for support.
The Gitxaala First Nation declined to comment due to the sensitive nature of the case.
The DFO emailed a statement saying they cannot comment in on-going cases, but pointed out “the harvest of bivalve shellfish is prohibited in most areas of the BC North Coast due to the possibility of elevated levels of Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning and other harmful toxins.”