An elder of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation cooking salmon, c. 1940.
Photo Vancouver City Archives, source www.firstnations.eu
According to most aboriginal witnesses  who testified at the Commission this week, DFO's lack of interest in the aboriginal worldview goes farther than its dismissal of traditional knowledge. The agency is convinced that it is the only actor to possess valid (read “scientific”) knowledge in all things salmon, and so, it has quite logically concluded that it should also hold a monopoly over decision-making power. DFO did consult with us in the beginning, Joe Becker of the Musqueam said, but now it's more like a dictatorship where agreements are presented to us on a take it or leave it basis, and if you leave it, then you don't get to fish. Councillor June Quipp: We have no part in the management of the fisheries. We may sit at a table with DFO people, but they believe we are so low on the totem pole, we have no authority. Chief Robert Mountain: We have attended some of DFO's meetings, but we are not part of their decision making process. DFO communicates us its decisions. That needs to change.
One particular manifestation of this process of disempowerment, according to the witnesses, is a bad habit – or perhaps is it a conscious tactic? – developed by DFO to send subordinate staff, who have no negotiating mandate or decision power whatsoever, to meetings with the aboriginal leadership. This has the result of preventing any true negotiation from actually taking place, in spite of DFO's clear mandate to carry out such negotiations with the First Nations. Chief Robert Mountain: We had our chiefs present at the table with DFO, and so we would like DFO to send their own decision makers, so that decisions can actually be made. Otherwise, we are not on a same footing.
Grand Chief Clarence Pennier:
We need a good level of understanding with senior officials from DFO. Right now, we are just dealing with people who are coming to put documents on our table and tell us 'this is what you are entitled and not entitled to'. That does not constitute negotiation.
[ Question from legal counsel: Do you mean to say that DFO representatives who meet with you don't have a mandate to negotiate? ]
Answer: That's right. They don't.
Such practices have led to the development of what several aboriginal witnesses have described as a culture of harassment and abuse of power on the part of DFO towards indigenous communities. The witnesses provided the Commission with numerous concrete examples of how this abusive relationship manifests itself.
Councilor June Quipp, about DFO's petty decisions over ceremonial rights to fish:
I recently put a request with DFO for a ceremonial permit. I asked them for the right to harvest one fish for a ceremony, and my request was denied. And this was in 2010!
DFO has recently taken upon themselves to define what constitutes our ceremonial practices. But they have only defined death so far. So – you have to die to be allowed to set the table.
Rod Naknakim, about the inadequate terms of the fishing permits granted by DFO:
Our fishing permit extends for only 12 hours for the entire season... It's hard to teach the young generations about fishing practices in such conditions, because you want to make sure you optimize your 12 hours on the water.
President Guujaaw of the Haida, about unequal treatment over access to the resource:
It became evident that DFO's efforts were focused specifically on our people. I was charged and convicted for taking 27 pink salmon and I spent 2 days in jail, while the industry took 750,000 from the same watershed without running into any difficulties.
Councilor June Quipp again, about paternalistic and redundant sharing of “scientific information”:
DFO was organizing those telephone conference calls on global warming. One year, my sister noticed that the water in the river was warmer but also higher than usual. She gets on the conference call, where a DFO biologist makes that exact same comment. And so she told me: do I really need to get on a conference call to hear something that I already know?
Chief William Charlie, about how DFO's dismissal of traditional knowledge has led that agency to make ill-informed decisions which were detrimental to the salmon:
We would use torch lighting in the in shallow parts of the river. You would build a fire on your canoe which would attract the salmon and that would allow you to pick and choose which salmon you want to fish. This practice had been banned for years by DFO on “conservation” grounds. We have finally been able to reassert ourselves and make the case that it's a selective technique.
A particularly telling exchange took place between the lawyer representing the Ministry of Justice, who was defending the position of DFO, and Chief Newman of the Heiltsuk. This tense dialogue illustrates the two incompatible logics as well as the power struggle taking place over the salmon numbers:
Dept. Justice: The number of fish allocated for food, social and ceremonial purposes (FSC) – those numbers have been stable for years, right?
Chief Newman:Yes. That's because DFO sets those numbers for us and we have no input whatsoever in setting them.
Dept. Justice: But your nation does not even come near to using its allocation.
Chief Newman: Like I said earlier, things have been bad and so there are not enough fish for us to live on.
Dept. Justice: But you don't meet your allocation –
Chief Newman: Because there is nothing for us to fish!
Dept. Justice: You are not catching your allocation because the fish are not there?
Chief Newman: That's right.
Dept. Justice: There is no sense then in bumping up those numbers, since the fish are not there.
Chief Newman: But we want the government to know what our needs are. If the fish do come back, we want to be able to harvest them.
One of the most striking comments about DFO's disregard for aboriginal knowledge and culture came from Doctor Ron Ignace of the Skeetchestn: 
There was a time when they tried to take the Indian out of the child. The way I see it now, the way the fisheries are being operated, it’s like they are trying to take the fish out of the Indian... The younger generation of the last 20 years have lost the knowledge of how to fish with a spear in the river... they have lost the language to communicate. That practice is lost to us.
The First Nations are responding to what they perceive as DFO's assault on their knowledge, culture, and way of life by formulating some key demands:
- Reclaim control over their traditional knowledge. We need funding from the government so we can hire our own biologists on the river, Grand Chief Clarence Pennier said. Councilor June Quipp: We need our own biologists. We have many people who have a lot of knowledge, having lived on the river, knowing the signs and symbols that we use, people versed in our traditional knowledge.
- Redefine co-management of the salmon resource to be precisely what it was supposed be: a “co” management between two equal partners. Chief William Charlie: Co-management means that we can sit down and come up with ways to go forward, as opposed to DFO's attitude of 'this is the deal, sign here, or else you cannot fish'.
- Reassert the fundamental right of aboriginals to harvest fish for their traditional needs and subsistence. Assert that right by force, if needed. President Guujaaw of the Haida gave the following example involving Copper River: it was a sockeye stream under management of DFO. It went down to a few hundred fish, so our people just took over the river. We did not fish there for several years, and today it's producing salmon again.
A more radical approach has been tested by the Haida over the years, rather successfully it appears: ignore DFO altogether, return it the favor of considering the “other party” as powerless and irrelevant. President Guujaaw:
We don't go to DFO for permits anymore. We have no respect for DFO in their management of the resources. Twenty-five years ago in Gwaii Haanas, we set up some blockades and we stopped logging in that area. The Federal government cut a deal. All our rights remain intact: we can hunt, fish, trap, live there, cut trees, and do all the things our ancestors did for generations without impacting the land. Now, management has really become management of the visitors in the area, determining the quotas of how many people we should allow in.
What a spectacular reversal of fortune for both the Haida and the salmon – Think about it. In the southern half of Haida Gwaii, stewardship of the salmon is no longer measured in the number of fish that can be harvested, but in the number of people who are allowed in! And it really does make sense, it simply requires another system of knowledge, of values, of economic priorities to take the place of the old one.
I left those extraordinary three days of testimony wondering whether the Haida were not onto something with their unconventional, yet decisive, treatment of what must be called “the DFO question”. When a governmental institution behaves towards your people as a neo-colonial power, ignoring its most basic contractual and treaty obligations, dismissing your ancestral knowledge and culture as being child play, and – to add insult to injury – depleting the resource that it is supposed to protect while arrogantly lecturing you on what constitutes good stewardship, should you not indeed declare such an institution irrelevant and simply walk away from it?
To anyone who has attended some of the hearings at the Cohen Commission – not just those three days dedicated to the First Nations – it is pretty clear that this Inquiry has turned into the trial of DFO. Show up at the Commission on any random day, and you will have a good chance of either hearing some witness blast DFO, or some DFO bureaucrat attempt to survive the heavy artillery barrage fired at him/her by an army of lawyers representing groups who have to deal with DFO in their daily lives. This raises a fundamental question. Is DFO, this broken institution, reformable? Or is it simply beyond repair and must be abolished at the Federal government's earliest convenience, to avoid a growing section of civil society from following the lead of the Haida, and simply declaring DFO's authority not applicable to them? Perhaps one of the primary contributions of this Commission will be to help answer this fundamental question. To be continued, then, in January.
 I am using quotes from aboriginal leaders which I transcribed to the best of my ability as the testimonies were being given at the Commission. While my transcriptions accurately convey the meaning of what was said, they may not always reflect the exact words used by the witnesses. For that, we will have the official transcripts which should be posted on the Commission's website within the next couple weeks. To indicate that my quotes are true in their content yet not necessarily exact in their form, I am using italics and no quotes whenever quoting an aboriginal witness.
 I was not present on the second day of the testimonials and so for those, I am relying on the transcripts provided by fellow activist Elena Edwards.