Aboriginal Hunting and Fishing Rights, Who Has Them Anyway?

As students of an Indigenous Politics course at the University of Manitoba, we were challenged by our professor to explore indigenous issues in a public forum. A recent Winnipeg Free Press article by Aldo Santin described a widening gulf between Aboriginal and non-aboriginal residents. As a group of four non-aboriginals, we are posting a series of blogs that explore topics that contribute to that Aboriginal/non-aboriginal divide our city.

Let us know what you think by adding comments, so we can keep the discussion going. In the next few weeks we will adding a number of posts, so stay tuned.

I will start off with a blog post exploring hunting and fishing rights. This topic has no shortage of misconceptions and controversy. It’s probably fair to say that most hunters and anglers hold strong opinions on what their rights are. They also hold strong opinion on what they think the rights of those on the other side of the divide should be.


What non-aboriginals are thinking
A widely held sentiment among non-aboriginals is that Aboriginals have the right to hunt or fish whatever they want, whenever they want, and they are beyond the reach of the long arm of the law. There is a lot of resentment going around about all the rules that non-aboriginals have to follow, and they often feel it’s unfair. “Aren’t we all supposed to be equal?”, they would say. And by “they”, I actually mean “we”, since I count myself as part of the non-aboriginal group.

I also love the outdoors and think that wild game and fish are the best foods out there. I consider myself fairly open-minded and think aboriginal subsistence hunting and fishing is great. In fact, I think most non-aboriginals would agree to that. But here in Manitoba, there is still an underlying tone of resentment and mistrust, one that is not that hard to flush to surface with a little prodding.

That is quite apparent if you read comments in the Winnipeg Free Press. As an example of this underlying mistrust let me provide two hypothetical conversations. In the first instance I might say something like, “The fishing is terrible this year, it sure was better last year.”

And my hypothetical buddy might respond, “It was great last year, but that was before the natives netted all the fish out.”

My response, “when did that happen?”

My buddy, “I heard it was last year, just after they stocked the lake. You know, they are legally allowed to block of two-thirds of the river at the mouth, so no wonder all the fish are gone”

Does that conversation sound familiar? I will make up a second hypothetical conversation about big game hunting. I might say something like, “too bad we can’t go moose hunting this year, they completely closed the season in Duck Mountain and every other good moose place is too far to drive.”

The other hunter might respond, “Yeah, Conservation said the moose population was way down, too bad the natives will go in with their freezer trucks and finish the rest of them off.”

Stories in the media
I think the narratives I just described are not too far off from what is said in pick-up trucks all across Manitoba. Just look at the stories and comments that have surfaced on the web in recent years. In 2012 there was a social media firestorm when a video went viral about aboriginal hunters taking 12 elk in eastern Manitoba. Non-aboriginal hunters were in an uproar about how subsistence living could justify such a large kill. The hunters maintain that they were harvesting just one animal per family, and if 12 licensed hunters had taken the picture there would be a celebration.

Just this summer an aboriginal hunter was sentenced to 13 months in prison for accidentally shooting his hunting partner at night, after mistaking his LED lamp for the eyes of a moose, which reflect back light when hunting with a spot light. Non-aboriginal hunters feel resentful. They feel it’s like the wild west out there, and what little enforcement there is, is directed only at them.

Rich resources of Manitoba
Manitoba is blessed with a bounty of unspoiled wilderness, and most urban Manitobans, especially those in Winnipeg, are completely unaware of the resources just beyond the city. It’s not just the fish and big game, there are game birds, wild rice, berries and mushrooms. And besides the food, there is timber for firewood and building cabins, herbs, medicines and fur-bearing animals.

It may look like a desolate landscape, especially when it is under a thick blanket of snow, but the wilderness is alive with life-giving sustenance. The land is more like an extension of a home, it is part of the living room and kitchen. Harvesting of fish and game is like getting some food from the fridge. The question is, who’s kitchen is it? Did we, the non-aboriginals just find it and declare it ours to keep, or was there always an owner in place? Hmmm, a thought provoking question.

Who manages what?
As it stands right now, Hunting and Fishing in the province of Manitoba is managed by the government branch, Conservation and Water Stewardship. Fishing and Hunting is restricted to seasons, and licenses are required. Strict limits are set for how many fish or how much game is allowed to be kept. Nets are not allowed, and there are limits to what types of firearms are approved and the magazine size for firearms. Commercial harvesting is limited to fish and fur only, and those are controlled by their own regulatory bodies.

Conservation and Water Stewardship publishes a handbook for fishing and hunting every year, which outlines specific rules and limits for specific lakes and hunting areas. Wildlife surveys are conducted and regulations are updated on yearly basis in response to fluctuating populations. All the other provinces have similar management systems.

Aboriginal People are not regulated by those same rules. Aboriginals in Manitoba are actually two distinct groups, First Nations and Metis. First Nations are a collection of distinct ethnic groups, each having their own language and customs, some similar to each other, and some very distinct. But for legal purposes, First Nations members all fall into one category.

The definition of Metis is bit more complicated. Metis are sometimes referred to as a mix between First Nations and non-aboriginals, and that they have a distinct ancestry, culture and language. An excellent explanation can be found at the âpihtawikosisân blog. The government requires that Canadians hold to only one ancestry, they are either non-aboriginal, First Nation, Metis or Inuit. In reality, things can get a bit messier, as some Canadians are a mixture of those groups but can only hold membership in one, and some identify strongly with a group and don’t hold membership in any.

In Manitoba, the government set hunting and fishing rules for First Nations members, which are regulated by the Natural Resources Transfer Agreement (1930). I won’t list all the specifics, but most of the restrictions for First Nations are common sense rules, like not being allowed to hunt along a road, the safe handling of firearms, not wasting any meat, not selling any meat, and not hunting in areas closed to hunting.

Metis hunting and fishing is managed by the Manitoba Metis Federation (MMF), and it publishes its regulations in a handbook. The rules are also based on common-sense principles. But since they are self-managed, they also include more specifics, like game hunting areas, limits on game, fish, fur-bearers and defined harvesting seasons. Furthermore, the MMF conducts harvesting surveys to manage population levels and closes areas that are threatened. Both First Nations and Metis rights are based on the principle of using food harvested from the land for sustenance, and not commercial purposes.

On the other hand, the provincial non-aboriginal regulations are not based on sustenance, but on recreation. Hunters are still required to take all the meat for consumption, but they don’t have the right to live off the land. They are also not expected to manage the animal populations or self-enforce. That is done by the provincial department. But they also contribute the most to the hunting and fishing pressures, which is why there is so much management and enforcement.

Misconceptions about Aboriginals
A common misconception about Aboriginal People is that they hunt and fish whatever they want, whenever they want. If that was true, then the fridge in the wilderness kitchen would have been emptied a long time ago. In reality, the opposite is true. The fridge was kept fully stocked for thousands of years. Sure, there are some theories that Aboriginal hunters may have cause the extinction of woolly mammoths, but lets not forget that there also was an end of an ice age that coincided with that. And even if Aboriginal hunters did hunt the woolly mammoths to extinction, it would have taken about 6000 years.

Now compare that to the near-extinction of over 60 million bison in only a few generations, caused by hunting pressure and habitat decline. Interestingly enough, that happened to coincide with settlers expanding exponentially across North America. The settler have a natural design to exploit everything they can, to seek out every commercial opportunity possible. All those provincially regulated hunting and fishing rules are an effort to slow that down before the animals disappear. Kinda makes sense that they only to non-aboriginals.

Three’s company
So how is everything managed in this three-party system? That is where things get confusing. As already mentioned, there are three quasi-separate management systems. Even though First Nations and Metis have distinct rights, they still fall under federal and provincial law, except for the exceptions. All three sets of hunters that can rightly hunt on the same land for the same game, and all three sets of anglers that can fish on the same lake for the same fish. Each group is managed and enforced separately, all have to obey the same criminal code. This triple system has let to frustration, resentment, and mistrust. This article offers a good summary of the frustrations around declining moose populations.

Two divided worlds on common land
I’m not going to offer any legalistic remedies to this 3-party system. A good vision needs to be based on communication and mutual understanding. A recently came across a great example of this found in an article by Nick Martin in the Winnipeg Free Press. The article describes the lasting effects that a forest fire from 2008 has on the Misipawistik Cree Nation living in Grand Rapids. The fire was accidentally set during a wilderness field trip run by a Brandon School. The intention was to learn, explore, and preserve nature, but the outcome couldn’t have been further from it’s goal.

The school group was exploring the biodiversity of the region, which is known for bat and garter snakes caves that are formed in the limestone cracks and outcroppings. The fire was caused by the burning of toilet paper, which ironically, was intended to destroy the evidence of human activity. And now, 6 years later, the Cree Nation describes the burned out area around Norris Lake as “a desert, it’s like a planet that has no life.” The community feels that part of it has been destroyed.

What the urban school failed to realize is that the wilderness they were exploring was not an unoccupied, but it is someone else’s home. It is land that is fished, hunted, and trapped. It is where medicines and timber are collected. After the fire, the Cree members wanted to open a dialogue with the school, and to offer reconciliation. They want to educate the on fire safety and “how to treat the land”. It is quite amazing for the Cree Nation to reach out with grace to those that destroyed their home, their livelihood, their kitchen, their pharmacy, their place of being. Sadly, the school did not reach back to them and all the students have since gone their own way. What a missed opportunity of cooperation.

The need for a new vision for living on common land
I think that is a lesson that all hunters and anglers should internalize. To treat the wilderness not as “wild”, but as an extension of somebodies home. We, the non-aboriginals, should ask ourselves, who’s home is it? What does it mean to them? Can we have a share in the resources?

We need to open lines of dialogue and begin to understand what it means to the owners of the home, and how we too can harvest with respect. I know we can’t ignore the realities of bureaucracy. There definitely is a need to manage the dwindling fish and game resources. This is a high-tech world of GPS, ATVs and powerful semi-automatic rifles. There will always be those, regardless of race, that will exploit the loopholes. They think they can do anything just because they can get away with it. Yes, there needs to be a better three-way partnership for management and enforcement, and one that allows everyone a share of the common resources.

It does come down to a matter of respect. Can we think past the bureaucracy and think about a vision? Can we accept the fact that Aboriginals need the freedom to manage their resources and enforce their members? And can non-aboriginals understand that they are hunting and fishing out of privilege? It’s not really a matter of equality or inequality, it a matter of respecting the Aboriginal land-owners. The land owners have allowed us our limit of Pickerel and Moose, so maybe we should reach out and thank them. If you think about it, it’s the non-aboriginals that have been granted the hunting and fishing rights. And the Aboriginals? They had it all along.



2 thoughts on “Aboriginal Hunting and Fishing Rights, Who Has Them Anyway?

  1. Christoph says:


    I don’t think anyone would argue with you that Aboriginals have a much greater and longer lasting tie to their land. As hunters and gatherers (in Manitoba) Aboriginals have relied on this land for their very survival. Therefore, I think it is very fair that Aboriginals are allowed to continue thriving in this traditional way of life.

    Non-aboriginals, on the other hand, have adapted their societies to rely on agriculture and industry. Hunting and fishing, for this peoples group, has evolved into a hobby, not a way of life. For that reason, it is impossible to try and treat both sides equally when it comes to such central questions as hunting rights and land titles.

    I don’t think we need a survey to indicate the growing divide and increasing resentment between the peoples. To me this resentment can’t be due to hunting rights alone. There are far too few people, as a percentage of Manitobans, who partake in this activity. The question comes down to land rights; a far bigger issue with greater implications.

    If we all believe that Aboriginals have stronger roots to their land (which I think most people will agree) why don’t they have the right to do with the land whatever they want? Why doesn’t the government settle the question of land rights once and for all without attaching strings or preventing certain land uses?

    To me this comes down to an economic issue. Let Aboriginals truly “own” their land privately just like you and I “own” the land our homes are built on (the government can still expropriate but I’ll ignore this for sake of argument). Let Aboriginals truly “self govern”. Let them harvest their own food freely on their land. Let them build homes from materials found on their land. Let them take care of their own services through economic development. Let them produce jobs on their land. For example, let them hunt and sell meat for commercial gains. Let them sell off hunting and fishing licences and set up guiding and touring companies for non-aboriginals. Let them decide for themselves how to manage their own resources, let them conserve their own wild life and water. If Aboriginals find it no longer possible to live in the traditional hunter/gatherer life style, let them decide whether they want to develop their land commercially or sell it off altogether to the highest bidder (not just to the crown). Let them adapt and develop new lifestyles to suit emerging realities; the same way everyone else does.

    Economic principles are far more efficient at managing resources than 3 different governing bodies with different standards and confusing rules. But this involves risk for both sides. For the government, it means risking the loss of profitable land. For Aboriginals, it means risking the loss of convenient services and crown-dependency. However, the “growing divide” needs to be addressed so that all Canadians can live in harmony and have their needs met. There needs to be a common sense solution that works for everyone. I say with great respect that Aboriginals have the right to enjoy the same freedoms, but also responsibilities, that non-Aboriginals do. Even if this looks different for both groups.



  2. Thanks Christoph, some good points you raise but the issue is a bit more complex. Lets take it a step backwards first. The treaties of western Canada were ones based on mutual understanding. Settlers wanted permission to use land for cultivation and Aboriginal groups were (and still are) willing to share resources. The settlers were originally at a disadvantage and were never refused permission to hunt and fish for sustenance. A common thread among treaties was that the two groups would continue to govern themselves seperately and not molest each other. Fast forward to today and Aboriginals are forced to be dependant on the crown. Hunting and fishing are two of the few more liberal rights, but even those rights are still dependant on the crown.

    What I am suggesting is that they be invited to the bi-govermental table as equal partners, in the spirit of the original treaties. Keep in mind that Aboriginals and non-aboriginals all live in mixed spaces, so resources are shared and must be managed in cooperation. Aboriginals live in urban centres, and non-aboriginals live in remote areas, so self-governing solutions can’t be necessarily constrained by territorial border.

    Aboriginals are not against cooperation, in fact, I believe they are calling for it (please, someone correct me if i’m wrong). The problem is that the crown is (mostly) refusing to invite them to the table. The most notable example would be the failed Meech Lake Accord.

    One exception appears to be the tsilqotin decision. The supreme court granted Aboriginal collective land title on non-treaty land, even though the crown fought against it. See Richard’s two blogs to read about the compromises taken by the Aboriginal nation: https://exploringthedivide.wordpress.com/2014/11/03/the-tsilhqotin-decision-unpacking-aboriginal-title/ and https://exploringthedivide.wordpress.com/2014/11/17/the-values-that-underlie-aboriginal-title/

    I propose that first, the crown (all levels of government and institutions) must stop fighting Aboriginal rights, and for non-aboriginals to begin understanding the issues at hand, and why they matter. How can self-governance (or even self-determination) happen if the public is ignorant and the crown is in denial? A perfect example of this lack of understanding is the recent case of the smudging ceremony denied at a local church. It may be that the church as perfectly legitimate reasons for refusing the ceremony, but they failed to get understanding of what they is, or why it is significant (http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/in-defence-of-immanuel-pentecostal-church-s-stance-on-smudging-1.2838512)



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