Members of the Sts'ailes First Nation fish for salmon using nets in the Harrison River basin.

Chilliwack court dismisses fisheries charge against former Sts’ailes chief

'No doubt an illegal fishery took place,' judge tells the court but Crown does not prove its circumstantial case

The charge of aiding or abetting an illegal fishery on the Harrison River against former Sts’ailles chief Willie Charlie was dismissed Monday in Chilliwack court.

The case, which also saw then fisheries manager Kim Charlie charged, has broader ramifications as it prompted the Sts’ailes to launch legal action of its own in BC Supreme Court against the governments of Canada and B.C.

It was August 2012 when the band requested a fishery opening from the Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO). That request was denied as DFO said the band had reached its limit of food, social, ceremonial (FSC) fisheries.

In her role as the banda’s fisheries manager, Kim Charlie disagreed with the decision of DFO arguing that even with conservation in mind, an opening was warranted.

“Miss Charlie expressed the view that enough sockeye had migrated through the area,” Judge Edna Ritchie told the court in rendering her decision.

Regardless, the request for a fishery was denied on Aug. 23. The next day, Willie Charlie sent two letters to the DFO regional director general looking for a quick appeal to overturn the decision so the band could get on the water.

They wanted to “fish these healthy stocks this week,” the court heard.

With no response from DFO by Aug. 28, band members went out to fish the Harrison-Chehalis waters anyway.

“There is no doubt an illegal fishery took place,” Ritchie told the court.

What was in doubt was whether that fishery was directed, encouraged or assisted by the Charlies, or whether they merely turned a blind eye.

The Crown argued that the only logical conclusion to be drawn was that the Charlies aided and abetted the illegal fishery, but defence argued the circumstantial case was insufficient to prove the charges.

“Willie Charlie and Kim Charlie wanted a fishery to happen,” Ritchie said, agreeing the Crown had not proven its case. “Wanting something to happen is not the same thing as causing it to happen. . . . They could have aided and abetted but they could have stood by while the offence occurred.”

And while Ritchie agreed the circumstances were “very suspicious,” the uncertainty was enough for reasonable doubt and the charges were dismissed.

It was five days ago the Sts’ailes formally announced legal action against Canada and B.C. in response to the charges faced by the Charlies.

Current Chief Harvey Paul said the Sts’ailes has protected the fishery in the area for countless generations with no depletion of returning stocks.

“It was not until DFO took over the management of the fish that the salmon seem to have run into problems,” Paul said. “Over the past two generations, our people remember the churning of the water in the sloughs due to the abundance of fish that used to return every year. Now there is barely enough to maintain the stocks of returning fish to spawn.”

The band’s aboriginal title and rights manager Boyd Peters called the legal action a “landmark case.”