Billings acknowledges First Nations smelt fishing rights

KAGAWONG – A statement by M’Chigeeng First Nation’s chief and council indicates that it has passed a band council resolution supporting its members’ treaty rights to fish for sustenance during the provincial state of emergency and stay at home order, while following restrictions. This comes as the province of Ontario has put in place these restrictions, and the Township of Billings has closed off municipal lands adjacent to the Kagawong River to the public for the smelt fishing season again this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. A Billings council message also, however, acknowledges the right of Indigenous people to fish for sustenance.

In a letter to band members, posted on the M’Chigeeng First Nation Facebook page, M’Chigeeng Ogimaa-kwe Linda Debassige, wrote, “On April 7, 2021 the chief and council passed band council resolution No. 4501 supporting the M’Chigeeng First Nation and its members’ treaty rights to fish for sustenance during the provincial state of emergency and stay at home order. What this means is that the chief and council assert on behalf of the First Nation and their members their treaty rights to fish and has the sovereign authority to do so. This treaty right is firstly an inherent right of our people. Secondly, the right is protected by Section 35 of the Constitution and by Section 25 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.” 

“The Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act cannot deviate from the Charter as described in section 7.0.2 (1) of the Act,” the M’Chigeeng statement reads. “M’Chigeeng First Nation has historically accessed the rivers, lakes and streams in our treaty territory to exercise our treaty right to fish since time immemorial in various locations in our territory. To be clear, this does not give a person a right to access private individual owned properties off-reserve.”

Ogimaa-kwe Debassige continued, “we will continue to support our band member harvesters with this inherent right and will require them to do so by wearing a mask, social distancing and not gathering in large groups while exercising their protected right. This also means that the council expects that our members will be respectful to anyone they may be in contact with while peacefully exercising their right. These requirements must be met by our members.” 

“We have not been consulted, nor advised of any order that any townships and/or municipalities may or may not have invoked in relation to the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act in our Treaty Territory. There is no public notice nor on any municipality or township websites,” continued Ogimaa-kwe Debassige.

The ogimaa-kwe added, “that said, our council has provided a statement to the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) in relation to any attempted charges. If you encounter police authorities while exercising your right we ask that you be respectful/and if you receive any charges, please contact Art Jacko and provide documentation that you may require.”

Mr. Jacko, M’Chigeeng First Nation band manager told the Recorder Tuesday that the statement, “is just a reminder to people that during this unprecedented time, exercising our treaty rights are still in place. During this unprecedented time, we just want to remind everyone that fishing is essential for our people and gathering of food such as salmon and smelts is a tradition among our people.”
“And we are reminding fishermen from our community to be respectful of private property and all COVID-19 restrictions in place,” said Mr. Jacko.

As had been reported last week, Billings council agreed with a recommendation from its municipal emergency control group to close off the Kagawong River to members of the public for the smelt fishing season again this year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Billings Township Councillor Bryan Barker had told the Recorder last Thursday, “we (MECG) had a meeting this morning and decided to close the river to smelt fishing this spring. In order to assist with that we will be looking at hiring a security company (which the township has) to assist us and to the OPP, MNRF (Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry), and PHSD (Public Health Sudbury and Districts) to help.” 

Megan Bonenfant, a member of the MECG committee told council at a meeting last week, “council has a recommendation from the committee concerning the smelt run, which normally takes place around mid-April and attracts a large number of people who are in close contact at the (Kagawong) River.” 

Billings Mayor Ian Anderson read the recommended motion from MECG to council, “to accept the bid from Cancom Security (to supply uniformed guards to cover off the smelt run) from April 9-25 at an estimated cost of $15,368.”

Billings Township posted a message on its website April 9 on the issue of smelt fishing: “Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic more than one year ago, the Township of Billings has been committed to the protection of not only the Billings community, but the Island-wide community and the shared health care resources we all depend on. National, provincial and local health authorities have made it clear that it is not safe to gather with people outside of our households and that masks and physical distancing are critical for personal and community protection both indoors and out. The province has declared a new state of emergency and a stay at home order has been issued.”

“It is within this context that the Township of Billings is closing the municipal lands adjacent to the Kagawong River for the duration of the 2021 smelt run, a time that typically sees large groups of people congregate shoulder to shoulder in the heart of Kagawong,” the Billings message explains. “Personnel will be on site during this time. The Township of Billings recognizes the rights of our Indigenous neighbours and residents to access cultural heritage resources, including food harvesting. We understand that spending time outdoors is critical for well-being. We encourage everyone to follow the spirit and regulations of the province stay at home order, wear a mask, maintain at least six feet distance from anyone not of your household, stay home except for essential needs, and be respectful toward anyone you may encounter. Thank you for your continued support and co-operation.”

Councillor Barker told the Recorder Tuesday, “we have not closed down smelt fishing at the river, we have closed off the land to the river—the property close to the river. There are a few guys at the bank of the river rainbow fishing these days but they are 50 feet apart. It was the influx of shoulder to shoulder crowds that occurs during the smelt fishing season that we are trying to prevent.”