Tangled Webs of History: Indians & the Law in Canada's Pacific Coast Fisheries // Review

By Newell, Dianne | Anthropologica, January 1, 1994 | Go to article overview
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Tangled Webs of History: Indians & the Law in Canada's Pacific Coast Fisheries // Review


Newell, Dianne, Anthropologica


When British Columbia entered Confederation in 1871, First Nations people (referred to then and in Newell's book as Indians) constituted a majority, yet were not consulted in negotiating the terms of union. Nowhere in the process of confederation were the institutions, governments and economies of the First Nations given serious consideration as founding principles of the new Dominion. The Fathers of Confederation thought that, with the implementation of a paternalistic Indian Act, Aboriginal people would eventually disappear or assimilate. They were wrong. The legacy of First Nations exclusion is very much a part of Canada's fundamental character today. Belatedly, the 1982 Constitution Act entrenched (but did not define) "existing aboriginal and treaty rights" (p. 9), many of which had by then been substantially eroded by more than a century of federal and provincial regulations through which governments extended their "exercise of complete dominion."

The books under review discuss the complex history of Aboriginal peoples' relations to the law and public policy. Both make it clear that Aboriginal rights will only become a reality through the continued and determined efforts of the First Nations themselves. Both explore the roles of academics (in particular, historians and anthropologists) as stewards of information relevant to the process. Newell's book is a sharply focussed account of how Canadian institutions transformed an Aboriginally managed fishery into one managed for the benefit of industrial special interests. Dyck and Waldram have assembled a collection of papers by people directly involved in "the land question," as it has been studied by anthropologists and come before the courts.

Tangled Webs is a powerful and richly documented history of fishing on the west coast of Canada. Newell's comparison of Aboriginal fishery management to that of the Canadian government reveals key differences between a system that evolved with the resource and one that has been suddenly imposed upon it. The perspective she develops is distinctively anthropological. Aboriginal people, she points out, evolved energy-efficient and sustainable techniques for taking and distributing anadromous fish from inland locations. Their social relations of production and distribution are unlike either individual private property systems or the common property that underlies the philosophy of government regulation. The Canadian government, by contrast, has encouraged a more and more costly technology in pursuit of a diminishing and ultimately endangered resource. Government policies and regulations of the fisheries resource, Newell says, "usually are responses to pressure from industry to reduce competition and frequently are not in the best interests of other user groups" (p. 6). Aboriginal groups, in contrast, "developed highly successful fishing and fish preservation technologies and regionally based systems of resource management and distribution" (p.

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