The MP for Owen Sound opens old wounds on Native fishing rights in the Bruce

“With the Natives pushing to come into the Bays, it is a deliberate attempt at confrontation. That’s what they want.”

With words like these, Larry Miller, (Con, Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound) criticized a new Aboriginal commercial fishing agreement signed between Ontario and the Saugeen Ojibway Nation (SON) and released March 12th.

That Agreement is the third since 2000 and it sets the terms by which the two First Nations on the Bruce Peninsula in Ontario will practices their aboriginal and treaty rights to fish commercially.

Saugeen Ojibway Nations commercial fishery (Fishing Agreement)
Saugeen Ojibway Nations commercial fishery (Fishing Agreement)

The Agreement has local sportsmen’s clubs steamed because, unlike the two previous Agreements, it provides no guarantees Native fishermen won’t set their nets deep inside Colpoy’s Bay at Wiarton and Owen Sound Bay. That’s where the clubs do most of their stocking of Chinook salmon and trout.

On an Owen Sound phone-in radio show on March 13th, Mr Miller said, “It’s common knowledge that the Natives don’t want any stocking done. Cuttin’ one finger at a time, except this time they cut off maybe a hand.”

Strong language such as this is bound to stir up hard feelings left over from the horrific events of 1995 (see ‘Some History’ below). The two bays are within the SON fishing territory and their Band members have every right to set nets there, as they did before they were pushed out a couple of generations ago.

Mr Miller: “The announcement they were going to fish in the bays was the insult. Now, to pay taxpayers money on top of it, it’s like puttin’ a man down and puttin’ the boots to him.”

The money he is referring to is $850,000 Ontario will stream to SON over 5 years to pay for monitoring and enforcement. That works out to roughly $85,000 a year for each reserve to pay a biologist, data collection, communications, and equipping boats and trucks.

Mr Miller: “When they get done with this five-year Agreement, you think the fish count is down now, it’ll be a lot worse. … It’s not about fairness. What it is, is reverse racism.”

In fact, this is the third such Agreement. SON has been fishing commercially in Georgian Bay and Lake Huron (see map) for nearly 20 years—ever since 1993, when an Ontario court recognized their Constitutionally protected aboriginal and treaty rights to do so. There is no evidence fish stocks have declined because of the Native fishery. However, there are other, more worrying factors: climate change, degrading habitat, shoreline development, and declining food biomass.

Mr Miller: “This won’t hurt just the city of Owen Sound it affects everybody around, whether your business is in Owen Sound or Meaford or Leith or Lion’s Head. It’s all about tourism.”

Local sportsmen’s clubs hold several fishing derbies over the summer culminating in the Salmon Spectacular at the end of August. Last year, they had one of their best years, with salmon caught bigger and heavier than ever.

Mr Miller: “There’s a double standard out there. Nobody is anti-Native. What they’re anti is double standard. Everybody needs to be equal.”

To treat everyone “the same” would mean denying First Nations the protection section 35 of the Constitution affords their rights to fish, hunt and gather. The 1993 Jones-Nadjiwon decision ruled the Ministry of Natural Resources’ management regime had discriminated against the two First Nations and was therefore of no effect. That meant negotiating another arrangement—hence the first Agreement in 2000.

Mr Miller: “This is a deliberate antagonism from the Natives. They know or should have known what the reaction would be.”

He has no evidence of this. However, to be fair, Mr Miller had tried to get hold of Chief Kahgee and Chief Lee before going on the phone-in show. Neither Chief called him back and no one from Nawash or Saugeen has responded to repeated requests from the media for comment.

Nevertheless, the kind of statements Mr Miller has been making, without first talking to the First Nations (or, it seems, the MNR), only serve to open old wounds, first inflicted in the ‘fishing wars’ in the Bruce in the 1990s.

Words that inflame can lead to actions that injure, as Justice Linden pointed out in his Report of the Ipperwash Inquiry. In that confrontation, similar comments from elected officials served to ramp up tensions until things turned violent.

While one can understand the frustration of not being told of the Agreement beforehand, never mind not being consulted during its negotiation, everyone should take a step back and remember that Native nets have been in the waters of Georgian Bay and Lake Huron for 20 years without damaging either the sports or the commercial fishery.

Those points were made by more responsible observers than Mr Miller—Josh Choronzey in a column in the Sun Times, March 14 and Phil McNichol in his column March 16.

As for Mr Miller, his words are a local reflection of how his party handles things that displease them. First demonize your opponent, as the Harper government did Linda Keen, the former chair of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, and Richard Colvin, the diplomat who blew the whistle on the Afghan detainee affair and, most recently, Kevin Page, the Parliamentary Budget Officer when he dared to ask about the impact of  the government’s budget cuts. Then, scare your constituency, as the government did by saying (over and over again) that environmental groups launder money from the US and are prone to terrorist acts.

It’s bad enough when a government plays bully politics with groups and individuals who have the means to protect themselves, but when an MP does it to his own constituents, and disadvantaged ones at that, it is a parody of leadership.

© David McLaren March 2013

Disclosure Note

I was the staff lead for communications for Nawash in the 1990s. I no longer work for either Nawash or Saugeen. However, I see similarities between the rhetoric of the early 1990s and the unhelpful discourse this time around.

Some History

The Saugeen Ojibway Nation, worried about encroachment on their fishing grounds obtained a Royal proclamation from Queen Victoria 1847 asserting their fishing territory.

Notwithstanding the Royal document, their fishing areas (primarily around the islands) were leased to non-Native fishermen by the government; first with permission, then without either consultation or permission.

The sturgeon was gone by 1900—fished for their eggs. Non-Native fishermen piled their carcasses on the FishingIsland in Lake Huron and burned them.

The lake trout were gone by the 1950s, decimated by aggressive fishing and the lamprey eel (an invasive species).

SON fishermen were squeezed into a postage size area north of Nawash.

Nawash fishermen were charged and convicted repeatedly for fishing over an imposed quota until the Jones-Nadjiwon decision of 1993. That decision:

  • Recognized SON’s right to fish commercially.
  • Judge      Fairgrieve also found that the Crown had not consulted the First Nations      on its regulatory regime and, in any event, had discriminated against Native fishermen. He ruled MNR’s management regime had no force against the FNs.
  • Opened the doors from a return (after some 150 years) to fishing for trade and      commerce anywhere in their traditional fishing waters—including Colpoy’s Bay and Owen Sound Bay.

In spite of the court ruling violence broke out in Owen   Sound and in the Bays in 1995—the same summer that Dudley George was killed by the OPP at Ipperwash. During that summer:

Nawash fishing tug burns in summer of 1995 (screen shot from 5th Estate episode)

Nawash fishing tug burns in summer of 1995 (screen shot from 5th Estate episode)

  • SON tugs were vandalized.
  • A Nawash woman selling fish at the Owen Sound farmers’ market was accosted by a group of sportsmen protesting Native fishing
  • A Native man was murdered, possibly over a dispute about the Ipperwash stand- off
  • Over 20 km of Native nets were stolen or cut adrift
  • Four youth were beaten, two stabbed after being attacked by about 20 non-Native youths.
  • Francis Nadjiwan’s tug was burned to the hull at the government in Oliphant.

In 1999, MNR enforcement officers were still harassing SON fishermen by taking up their nets and arbitrarily closing sections of their fishery. During one such closure, the husband of the woman who had been harassed at the Farmers’ market in 1995 went out on a choppy Georgian Bay to retrieve his nets before the MNR could lift them. He fell out of his open motor boat and drowned. It was revealed later, during a judicial review, that the closure order was invalid.

Notwithstanding the clear ruling and the violence, it took the Harris government 7 years from the date of the Jones-Nadjiwon decision to come to the table. SON and MNR signed the first Fishing Agreement in 2000 and the second in 2005. Third party interests, such as sportsmen’s clubs, were (and are) supposed to be represented by the Crown during negotiations.

A description of these events is on the Ipperwash Inquiry website, accessible at:

Angling at Colpoy`s Bay

Angling at Colpoy`s Bay


About David McLaren

David McLaren is an award-winning writer. He has worked in government and the private sector, with NGOs and First Nations in Ontario. He is currently writing from Neyaashiinigamiing on the shore of Georgian Bay and can be reached at In February 2015, he won the nomination for the NDP to represent the riding of Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound in the 2015 federal election. See that page for writings during the campaign.
This entry was posted in All Categories, News and politics, Neyaashiinigamiing, Turtle Island and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to The MP for Owen Sound opens old wounds on Native fishing rights in the Bruce

  1. Rob Rolfe says:

    Thanks for this factual article, a useful antidote to the very disturbing actions of this elected Conservative politician. Here he is, stoking the fires of an emotional backlash against local First Nations fishermen once again. Real leadership would be to do the opposite of what Mr Miller has done, by trying to provide a bridge between peoples to find mutually beneficial ways to work together to protect fish stocks without infringing upon the rights of First Nations fishermen. Too much to expect from this politician, who seems to see conflict as a way to get what he wants?

  2. While Miller think nothing of raising the pitch of racist rhetoric, piling fuel on a smoldering fire, he then comes out in denial saying natives are not to blame. It is the provincial government that is selling (presumably) whites down the line. At his best he comes off like a buffoon. At his worst he is a disgrace to his office. With every movement of his mouth he abdicates any responsibility to leadership his office confers on him. What might have once been quaint or amusing is now only embarrassing and disgusting.

  3. Ann Schneider says:

    We should be able to expect elected officials to give thoughtful leadership and support the movement towards accurate information and understanding in their community. What Larry Miller has done is anything but that, instead he attempts to inflame anger and plays partisan politics with an issue that is about rights, the natural resources and people’s livelihood. Shame on him

  4. Dwayne Nashkawa says:

    Excellent piece David – starting to feel like 1995 all over again down that way… Let’s hope not.

  5. Patric Ryan says:

    I worked in the commercial fishery for two seasons in the early ’80’s out of Tobermory and Dorie and I ran a fish retail business as well. For a decade during that time I operated many vessels out of Tobermory and got to know the fishing community. Fine people who cared for their way of life. It was disheartening to see the quotas taken from the families who had fished the area, and even the Lower Lakes for generations. They were caught in a political turf war, not of their own making. There could have been a more decent way to allow the Natives and the locales to share the waters. Governments seldom do the right thing. The provincial government, abetted by the feds, did the worst thing possible…destroy a way of life for one faction while appeasing the demands and threats of another, notwithstanding the original Treaties. Treaties can be renegotiated. Fairness is the only arbiter of history and the future.

  6. Patric Ryan says:

    I just reread the fine article by Josh Choronzey re: commercial fishing in areas of recreational fishing interests. Here is another opportunity to do something right for all parties. There inevitably will be hard feelings about who has a right to what waters for what purposes.
    Pound-net fishing is a historic practice on Georgian Bay and the Islands. Widely used throughout the world. It’s also called trap net fishing. Essentially a mesh box is set out from shore and mesh leaders direct fish to enter the box, from which they do not escape. The smaller fish simply swim through the mesh, but the larger fish circulate in the box. They are not ‘gilled’. A pound-net boat comes alongside the box, the net is pulled up, the bottom of the box closed, and the fish are scooped or hauled aboard. Here is the opportunity to sort the fish. Only the keepers are landed by the fishermen, the by-catch is released. Another feature of the pound-net over the gill nets, the fish are not dying if left for a couple of days due to bad weather. What needs to take place is for the Ministry and the Native Fishery to negotiate this change in style of fishing. Pound-net fishing requires different gear, but much less damage to the fish stocks are a long term bonus. The government that created this problem can subsidize the change, (I would happily direct tax money to this program) as they did with the taking of gill net boats from the non-native fishermen so ruthlessly in the ’90’. Also, long term-the recreational fishery is not affected (and the Sportsmen’s Clubs will be encouraged to continue their stocking programs) as the target fish are protected and the pound-net locations are clearly marked and avoided. Solution to the problem, everyone has equal access to the waters, as it should be.

  7. gwkenny says:

    David, how can I access recent hard data that would demonstrate that (hopefully) SON fishers are not unduly interfering with the sports fishery, for salmon in particular, in Owen Sound? A neighbour of mine has alleged that Native fishers “are taking all the salmon.” I regard this as a gross over-statement and motivated by long-held prejudices and stereotypes, but having some recent data would be helpful in providing my neighbour with some needed context. Thank you. Gary Kenny, Neustadt

    • Gary
      That’s a good question. Anecdotally, SON fishermen have told me time and again they don’t want to catch salmon, mostly because they can’t sell them. But also because they feel a west coast predator has no business being stocked in the Great Lakes. I seldom see salmon on the reserve at Neyaashiinigmiing. I know of no one who even likes to eat them. If they are caught at all, they are part of the incidental catch. Hard data might be available through the fisheries offices at Saugeen or Nawash but I’d be surprised if they would part with it, although you could try asking for the percentage of total catch that salmon make up. I’m not working for the Bands now, so I can’t help you. Alternatively, the Ministry of Natural Resources might have the catch records. The area MNR office still has a fisheries branch.

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