Ugly incident yields peaceful co-existence on Fraser River

March 11, 2010

When Chief Willie Charlie was shot in the face with a pellet gun and his boat rammed by an enraged sport angler, it marked a boiling point in a long-simmering dispute between two fishing factions on the Fraser River.

After the incident last summer, sparked when Mr. Charlie's net fouled a sport fisherman's anchor line, natives began telling him it was time to start shooting back.

But instead of descending into violence, things have taken a dramatic turn on the Fraser, where aboriginal and sport fishermen are pursuing an unusual peace initiative that replaced the threat of gunfire with a photo shoot.

This week, as part of an effort promoting understanding between native and sport fishermen, a video crew was on the water recreating the shooting of Mr. Charlie as part of a film about how to share the river.

"I really hope this will break down the stereotyping on both sides and lead to better times on the river for us all," said Mr. Charlie, whose Chehalis band lives along the banks of the Harrison and Fraser Rivers, near Chilliwack.

He said in the immediate wake of the shooting he was "mad, angry, pissed off," and thinking about revenge.

"But I was also scared things were going to escalate on the water," he said. "I realized that had that been a real gun, I wouldn't be alive."

The incident started when Mr. Charlie asked a pair of sport fishermen to move their boat out of a prime drift-net location he'd been working. The anglers refused, then got angry when the net caught on their anchor line. When Mr. Charlie's brother tried to untangle it, one of the sport anglers hit him with a dip net.

"I picked up a paddle for my brother to defend himself. That's when the other guy pulled a gun. I could see it shaking in his hand," Mr. Charlie said. "I realized, he's thinking about shooting me."

The first shot hit him in the face. Then Mr. Charlie started swinging the paddle.

"I clubbed him and the gun went flying," he said.

Soon the two warring groups were surrounded by other boats, and fishermen were shouting at them to stop fighting. After the anchor line was untangled, the sport boat roared off, then turned back to ram Mr. Charlie's boat. Then it fled, and a police investigation has since failed to locate or identify the two fishermen.

The incident shocked native and sport anglers so much that they agreed to a series of meetings.

"At first it was pretty tense," Mr. Charlie said about sitting down across the table from people he'd come to see as enemies. "But we kept talking. We came to understand each other better."

Dave Moore, executive director of the Fraser River Salmon Table, a non-governmental organization concerned about fishing issues on the Fraser, facilitated the talks.

"There had been efforts at dialogue in the past, but the Willie Charlie incident really galvanized things," Mr. Moore said. "It made people realize something had to be done to find some common ground. I mean, tensions were so high, people were talking about closing the river to all fishing."

He said a lot of ideas came out of the discussions, including a proposal to shoot a video that would help both aboriginal and sport fishermen understand each other's pursuits. When it's finished, the video will be posted on the Internet and shown in fishing tackle shops in the Fraser Valley.

In addition, Mr. Moore said, the Chehalis band has recently completed an anglers' footpath that crosses the reserve, to give sport fishermen better access to the water. There are also plans to put in more parking lots and boat launches, to help focus sport fishing in certain areas.

RCMP Corporal Chris Gosselin, who patrols the river, said it's remarkable to see the two sides collaborating.

"A few years ago, I couldn't have imagined this happening," he said. "It was very encouraging to see people laughing and joking [on the video shoot] ... It made my heart feel positive about the future."

Ernie Crey, a fisheries adviser with the Stó:lô Tribal Council, said tensions have been rising on the river because of a relatively new and growing sport fishery for sockeye.

"I think we can learn how to share the river," he said, "but it's going to take a lot of goodwill on all sides."

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