April 27, 2008 —A small First Nation community in northern BC has made history for itself today.
On the eve of a precedent-setting trial Canada agreed to compensate the people of Hagwilget Village near Hazelton for the complete destruction of their fishery by Canada fifty years ago. The trial was scheduled to start this morning, but on Friday afternoon Canada agreed to a judgment for $21.5 million dollars to compensate the Hagwilget people for not having fish for fifty years and for the damages to their culture as a result of the devastation of their fishery.
Hagwilget Chief Dora Wilson stated after a community meeting on Sunday, April 26th, “Our members have overwhelmingly supported the decision of the elected Chief and Council to settle our case for $21.5 million. This award will be established in a trust to advance the education in our languages, our culture and the future of Hagwilget.”
In the winter of 1959 representatives from Department of Fisheries dynamited several large boulders in the Bulkley River next to the reserve, completely destroying that First Nation’s active fishery there. The Hagwilget people say that the blasting was done in complete disregard of the Hagwilget people’s rights to their fishery and was aimed to provide more salmon for the commercial canneries. The Hagwilget fishery had been used by the Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en continuously since before contact. It was one of the richest Aboriginal fisheries on the Skeena River system which include the Bulkley River.
Chief Wilson tells of how in 1959 a group of women tried to throw rocks on the men dynamiting the fishery. “They knew what we were about to lose and they tried to do everything in their power to stop it.”
As she explains, “From being one of the richest and proudest communities in the Northwest, respected by our neighbours and those farther away, we became beggars asking for fish from others if they had any to spare.”
The Hagwilget people have seen the downward spiral that has resulted from the loss of identity. Many believe they can link substance abuse and suicide attempts at Hagwilget to the loss of the fishery.
“We didn’t lose just the fish and the value they gave us, but also a sense of who we were,” says Chief Wilson. “That fishery was the main thing binding us together and also the time when we conveyed elements of our culture and language to our young people. It happened in our smokehouses where we prepared the fish, on the trails to and from the canyon, during the fishing, in our homes and in the village each fishing season. With the fishery gone, it all just kind of unraveled.”
Chief Dora Wilson 250-842-6258
Vernon Joseph 250-842-6258
Peter Grant (Hagwilget Village legal counsel) 604-209-1662