Phil Eidsvik (left) and then-MP John Cummins (now BC Conservative leader) were among the fishermen who were fined for participating in illegal protest fisheries in 2001 or 2002.

Fines upheld for illegal protest of native fishery

BC Conservative leader John Cummins among defendants in failed appeal

B.C.’s high court has upheld a $300 fine for illegal fishing against BC Conservative leader John Cummins for his participation in a decade-old protest fishery on the Fraser River.

The former commercial fisherman was a Canadian Alliance MP for Richmond-Delta East at the time and one of 47 fishermen fined for fishing at closed times in 2001 or 2002.

Their goal was to shine a spotlight on what they felt was rampant illegal selling of salmon by First Nations and lax policing of the aboriginal fishery by the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO).

“The appellants broke the law as a protest, but as any person who carries out ‘civil disobedience’ is aware, that is no defence,” the B.C. Court of Appeal ruled. “A court cannot condone a breach of the law by reason of the non-prosecution of another offender.”

Another defendant, B.C. Fisheries Survival Coalition spokesman Phil Eidsvik, said the group is considering an appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada.

“We’re disappointed the court held race-based law enforcement is appropriate in Canada in 2012,” he said, adding the new ruling does advance some of the group’s legal arguments.

Commercial fishermen were incensed in 2001 and 2002 that they were barred from fishing because of poor sockeye returns while First Nations – who fish ahead of other users for food, social or ceremonial reasons only – hauled in big catches that were widely suspected of ending up on the black market.

The Cohen Inquiry last year heard testimony from DFO investigators that aboriginal food fisheries on the lower Fraser were “out of control” and the vast majority of salmon caught was being illegally sold.

Eivsik said DFO continues to “turn a blind eye” to the problem.

A series of legal challenges over the years by commercial fishermen have failed to force DFO to apply equal legal treatment to aboriginal fisheries and several rulings have strengthened First Nations right to fish ahead of other users for traditional purposes.

The Supreme Court of Canada ruled in 2008 DFO could authorize aboriginal fisheries for sale and found different treatment before the law can be justified because First Nations are a disadvantaged group.