Chief Leads Resurgent Homalco First Nation

Refusing to be ‘swept under the carpet, Chief Blaney won judgment against fish farming.

By Andrew Findlay

Published: April 5, 2005

When Darren Blaney strode into downtown Vancouver’s courtroom 51 in January, he was thinking about Church House Bay, his birthplace near the head of Bute Inlet.

Though the clapboard church and houses of that abandoned native village sit vacant, slowly being reclaimed by the wind and rain, the site lies at the centre of a resurgent Homalco First Nation. Blaney, 46 years old and energetic, is the Homalco chief. He is taking on the B.C. government and one of the largest fish farming companies in the world, claiming that his people have been ignored when it comes to deciding where, when and how to site fish farms in their traditional waters.

The court proceedings that brought Blaney to Vancouver in January marked only the latest battleground in that fight. It began in 2002 when Marine Harvest, a subsidiary of Dutch multinational Nutreco, hashed out a deal with Blaney’s predecessor to farm Pacific Spring salmon in Church House Bay, promising jobs and economic opportunities for the Homalco.

According to Blaney, just one band member is currently employed at the farm.

Battled Atlantic salmon plan

From the outset, the deal was not popular among most Homalco who shared concerns about the threat of sea lice, pollution and disease to the wild salmon that ply their ancestral waterways from the Southgate, Orford and Homathko rivers in Bute Inlet out to the open ocean. Last April, claiming that it was unable to farm Spring salmon profitably, Marine Harvest applied to the provincial government for a license that would allow them to restock the farm with controversial Atlantic salmon. The Homalco first heard about the application on July 20, 2004. According to Blaney, they spent the fall trying without success to get more information about what if any specific “fish health management plan” the government and Marine Harvest had to mitigate fish escapes, the spread of sea lice and damage to the marine environment from fish waste.

On Dec.17, 2004, literally hours before the band office was to close for Christmas, the Homalco were blindsided with news from the government that Marine Harvest's application had been approved a week earlier. While band council members were making holiday plans, the farm was being re-stocked with Atlantics.

Blaney responded swiftly by asking the courts for an injunction to block Marine Harvest from introducing Atlantics to Church House claiming that the government had failed to adequately consult the Homalco and address concerns about the environmental impacts.

On December 24, in a landmark decision the B.C. Supreme Court granted an interim injunction, putting the brake’s on Marine Harvest’s plans for Church House Bay, and ordered a judicial review of the approval.

Marine Harvest dutifully appealed but the BC Court of Appeal upheld the decision. Now a microscope has been focused on how the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries goes about approving controversial fish farms.

Injunction keyed off Haida decision

The injunction was significant for a couple of reasons. It was the first to be based on last November’s Supreme Court of Canada decision involving the Haida that said government’s must consult First Nations before allowing resource development that might impinge on aboriginal rights and title. But beyond legal matters, it was also a determined move by the Homalco people struggling to assert their interests and be heard by the mandarins in Victoria who are keen to promote fish farming as the economic saviour of the West Coast....

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Courtenay-based Andrew Findlay is a regular contributor to The Tyee.