Native-only, commercial salmon fisheries are a form of racial discrimination and thus a violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, a BC Provincial Court judge ruled last week.

In a landmark decision certain to have far-reaching implications for the West Coast’s fishing industry, Mr. Justice William Kitchen declared native-only fisheries invalid because they discriminate against other commercial fishermen.

“Racial discrimination in our society takes on many guises,” Judge Kitchen said, as he stayed charges against a large group of non-native fishermen for fishing illegally during a commercial salmon run open only to natives. “When racial discrimination, or any semblance of it, is identified, any continuance of it should not be permitted.”

Since 1992, the controversial program allowed several native bands along the Fraser River exclusive rights to commercially harvest some returning salmon runs. But it has enraged commercial fishermen who have often had to tie up while native fishermen lower their nets. They charge the practice is nothing more than a race-based fishery.

Dozens of fishermen who crowded into the courtroom burst into applause as Judge Kitchen concluded his ruling, which effectively kills native-only commercial fisheries in the province, pending an appeal.

“Finally, justice,” said one fisherman, as he left the courtroom. “Hey, wanna dance?” offered another.

Gillnetter Dale Armstrong’s family has fished for three generations along the Fraser. “I’m very happy,” he said. “I’ve sat on the beach for 10 years and watched [natives] catch the fish. It’s just not fair.”

But native leaders predicted trouble ahead if their exclusive fisheries are scrapped.

“They were originally conceived to relieve tension and confrontation on the river. Now we may be back to that scenario,” said Amie Narcisse, chairman of the B.C. Aboriginal Fisheries Commission.

He said aboriginal fisheries have brought “a hell of a lot of benefits” to native communities. “It was working. This is not a good day. In all frankness, I am pissed off and disappointed.”

Judge Kitchen did not mince words in his lengthy judgment, which goes far beyond an earlier Provincial Court ruling that also criticized the policy of commercial native salmon fisheries. “It promotes the view that they [non-native fishermen] are not as equally deserving of concern, respect and consideration as members of the [native] bands.”