VANCOUVER - The federal government has allowed the only two First Nations appointments to a Canada-U.S. commission that manages Pacific salmon to lapse, prompting aboriginal fishermen to accuse Ottawa of shutting them out.
The Pacific Salmon Commission was set up as part of the 1985 Pacific Salmon Treaty, which governs how salmon are managed and shared off the West Coast.
Each country appoints eight people to the commission: four commissioners and four alternates, though in practice all eight are treated as full members.
Traditionally, Canada has had one First Nations commissioner and one First Nations alternate, but the most recent aboriginal commissioner, Grand Chief Saul Terry of the Bridge River Indian Band, north of Vancouver, wasn't reappointed after his term ended in March of last year. Ottawa has yet to name a replacement.
The First Nations alternate commissioner, Russ Jones of the Haida Nation, hasn't been formally reappointed since his term expired last March, though he isn't sure whether that means he's on or off the commission.
Jones said he's still permitted to attend and participate in commission meetings, but the Fisheries Department has stopped covering his travel expenses and he's been unable to get any explanation from the federal government. He's received help from aboriginal fishing groups to cover his travel costs.
"Currently, there are no First Nations commissioners appointed, although I have been participating as I can," Jones said in an interview ahead of a major Pacific Salmon Commission meeting taking place this week in Vancouver.
"It certainly does (present a problem), especially when we have high First Nation participation in the fisheries."
The Pacific Salmon Commission referred questions about the roster of Canadian commissioners to Ottawa.
The federal Fisheries Department declined to comment about when, or even if, it would reappoint First Nations members to the commission, responding with a brief written statement that said decisions are "pending." The department did not answer a question about Jones' status as an alternate commissioner.
The Fisheries Department's written statement also ignored questions about concerns that First Nations aren't adequately represented on the commission.
The Opposition NDP said in a news release the foot-dragging in reappointing the aboriginal commissioners is part of the Conservative government's pattern of not listening to First Nations concerns.
Fisheries critic Fin Donnelly said the work of the salmon commission depends on input from aboriginal representatives.
Chief Ken Malloway of the Sto:lo Tribal Council, who sits on a group within the commission called the Fraser River panel, said there is no excuse for the delays and uncertainty around the commission appointments.
"The recreational fisheries and the commercial fisheries don't have any problems getting their nominees selected, but when it comes to First Nations, they drag and drag their feet for whatever reason," said Malloway.
"It's not acceptable to First Nations, but it's not surprising."
Malloway, who is also a member of the B.C. First Nations Fisheries Council, said the council sent the federal government its suggestion to replace Saul Terry last year. Ottawa then asked the group for two more names, which it provided, but the council has so far heard nothing, he said.
The lack of First Nations representation on the commission comes as Canada and the United States renegotiate a key provision of the treaty known as the Fraser River annex, which governs sockeye and pink salmon from the Fraser River.
A new annex must be in place by the end of this year, with current negotiations focusing on a range of issues related to quotas for each country, including a policy that sees 400,000 sockeye salmon reserved each year for the Canadian aboriginal fishery .
The main negotiations are being handled by the Fraser River panel — which is in charge of managing quotas and setting regulations for the Fraser River before and during each season — with guidance from the commission.
The Fraser River panel has 12 members from each country, including six full members and six alternates, but there are only two First Nations appointments on the Canadian side. Currently, they are Malloway and an alternate, Marcel Shepert. A third, Brian Assu, is also aboriginal, but he was appointed as a commercial fisherman and not to specifically represent First Nations interests.
Shepert said First Nations members should make up at least half of the Fraser River panel and the commission. The Fraser River panel is especially important to aboriginals, he noted, because recent sockeye returns have meant only aboriginal fishermen have been permitted to fish sockeye for roughly three out of every four years.
"The bottom line is that it's way underrepresented in terms of our interests," said Shepert.
The Pacific Salmon Commission meeting this week is one of three scheduled throughout the year. The January meeting is primarily intended to review last year's season, but this year's gathering will also include discussions about the Fraser River annex.