First Nations Fishing Rights – Fact Sheet

Published: May 18, 2018News


Fishing is part of First Nations culture and identity. It sustains First Nations peoples and economies and is a constitutionally protected inherent and Treaty right. In the spirit of reconciliation and raising awareness of our shared history and future, the Assembly of First Nations National Fisheries Committee, by direction from Chiefs across the country, have declared May 21, 2018, a National Day of First Nations Fishing Rights. This is a day to honour the inherent right to fish, to raise awareness of its interconnectedness to growing sustainable environments, conservation and water protection and fostering healthy individuals and nations. Victoria Day was chosen by the National Fisheries Committee as a statement: this is an effort to decolonize a day named for the Queen who presided over many of the Treaties made with First Nations.


Fisheries & Colonization

  • At Canada’s Confederation in 1867, the federal government was given authority over fisheries and set up the Department of Marine and Fisheries. First Nations governments were not consulted or involved in the development of this legislation.
  • The Numbered Treaties were a series of 11 Treaties made between the Government of Canada and First Nations from 1871 to 1921, covering the area between Lake of the Woods (northern Ontario, southern Manitoba) to the Rocky Mountains (northeastern British Columbia and interior plains of Alberta) to the Beaufort Sea (north of Yukon and the Northwest Territories). 
  • As part of the obligations of the Hudson Bay Company for the transfer of Rupert’s Land and the North-Western Territory to the federal government, Canada had to address Indigenous claims to those lands. The Crown used the Numbered Treaties to get access to traditional territories and assert its jurisdiction in exchange for certain promises such as reserve lands, annual payments and hunting and fishing rights to unoccupied crown lands. 
  • From 1850-54, the Crown negotiated 14 treaties (known as the Douglas Treaties) with some of the Indigenous Peoples of Vancouver Island, that confirmed the right to “carry on our fisheries as formerly.”


Celebrating Fishing, Indigenous Cultures and Languages

  • Fishing promotes healthy family connections and activities. Fishing is more than the act of removing fish for food – it is teaching and talking about fish, the water sources and the many activities that impact First Nations rights and cultures.
  • Fishing in many First Nations is a key activity in transmitting cultures and languages. Use May 21 as an opportunity to learn, share and pass on those words and practices.
  • Fishing and food is integral in First Nations cultures. Fishing is an important part of trade, labour and the economy. It helps to shape identity, promote mental, physical and spiritual health, including suicide prevention and life promotion.
  • Sustainable, strong fishery economies and water and environmental protection fosters strong individuals and nations.

Inherent Rights and Governance Systems

  • First Nations in Canada have inherent and Treaty rights protected in the Canadian Constitution. These rights include the right to traditional and customary governance of traditional lands, waters and resources, including fisheries.
  • The duty of the Crown states that the federal government must consult and accommodate First Nations in any decision-making involved in First Nations territories. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples further articulates Indigenous rights including Free, Prior and Informed Consent.
  • Courts in Canada, including the Supreme Court of Canada, have made a number of decisions recognizing First Nations rights. Some significant decisions recognizing the rights of First Nations to fish and exercise governance over their traditional fisheries include Sparrow (1990), Gladstone (1996), Delgamuukw (1997), Marshall (1999), Haida (2004) and Ahousaht (2009).
  • 200+ Canadian Supreme Court decisions bear the name of many First Nations individuals who fought valiantly for their rights. First Nations must now be included in any discussions on fisheries and oceans management, water source protection.
  • First Nations rights are also articulated in international law, specifically in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Specific articles related to fishing include Article 25, Article 32 (2) and Article 32 (3).

A number of First Nations are exercising the right to institute their own laws in regards to fishing. These include the Sheshegwaning First Nations first aquaculture law, Listguj Miqmaq first-ever salmon law and Nisga Lisims fish and wildlife laws.