Williams Lake Courthouse (Monica Lamb-Yorski photo - Williams Lake Tribune)

Williams Lake Courthouse (Monica Lamb-Yorski photo - Williams Lake Tribune)

Indigenous fishers charged during closure to argue in court

Pre-trial conference scheduled in Williams Lake Provincial Court April, 12

Several First Nations people will be in court asserting their Aboriginal right to fish after being charged with possessing illegally caught salmon during a closure approved by Indigenous leaders in B.C.’s Central Interior.

Thomas Leonard Billyboy, 77, appeared in Williams Lake Provincial Court Monday, March 8, and is scheduled to appear again for a pre-trial conference on Monday, April 12.

He is one of at least seven people who will appear in William Lake Provincial Court on the date on fishing charges.

“Aboriginal title and rights are recognized,” Billyboy said outside the courthouse.

“The chiefs should have asked us, and they didn’t.”

The resident of ?Esdilagh First Nation (Alexandria) located between Williams Lake and Quesnel, was to appear self-represented for trial that day but was granted an adjournment by Provincial Court Judge Peter Whyte for the purposes of bringing an Aboriginal rights defence.

“This is a file in which the river was closed to salmon fishing,” Crown prosecutor Anthony Varesi told the court.

“The closure was done in consultation with the local band and Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), and the band closed the river for conservation reasons.”

EMERGENCY NOTICE: Please be advised that a Salmon Closure has been issued.

Posted by Tsilhqot'in National Government on Friday, August 30, 2019

Billyboy is alleged to have caught fish on Sept. 5, 2019, at which time the retention of sockeye, chinook and coho were prohibited.

Closures had been declared by the Northern Shuswap Tribal Council Fisheries Department and Tsilhqot’in Nation Council of Chiefs, who said the Big Bar landslide along the Fraser River north of Lillooet had created a crisis for returning salmon.

A year later, fishing remained closed as sockeye and chinook returns were at one of the lowest numbers ever recorded.

TNG Statement : Statement on Salmon Closure announced last Friday, August 14, 2020.

Posted by Tsilhqot'in National Government on Tuesday, August 18, 2020

“It’s a communal right, not an individual right,” Tsilhqot’in National Government (TNG) tribal chair Chief Joe Alphonse told Black Press Media, adding it’s up to communities as a whole to decide whether or not they will support fish closures.

Charges at the pre-trial conference include purchasing, selling, or possessing illegally caught fish.

During the closure, Roger Solomon, 59, was allegedly found in possession of salmon on Sept. 5, 2019, by fishery officers with DFO who had set up a checkpoint at Sheep Creek Hill west of Williams Lake.

Also allegedly found in possession of salmon at the checkpoint on Sept. 13, 2019, are Ronnie Harper, 61, William Darrell Sellars, 61, Earl Richard Thomas, 54, Edward Gregory Thomas, 53, and Mackenzie Storm Thomas, 26.

Alphonse criticized management actions by the provincial and federal governments, which he said have left First Nations sacrificing their rights and cultural practices in efforts to protect salmon stocks.

“Everywhere I look, they are doing a very poor job.”

Read More: Ottawa announces ‘unprecedented action’ to protect Fraser River chinook

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