Shawn Atleo is a hereditary chief of the Ahousaht tribe and a treaty negotiator. He is also director of his own training and consulting company.


How do you feel about salmon aquaculture, the declining fisheries, and the problems with timber management?

The perspective that our people come from is one that requires us to have respect for all living things, and that includes those that have come to our territories. In our language, the people who come to these lands are called Ma-meth-me, which means people without roots here. It seems to make sense to our elders that people without roots here would act in a way that isn't in the best interest of the environment.

They don't recognize the full connectedness we have with all of our territories, all of the living things in our territories, and all things are connected. The way others have treated our people and our territories has been in a way that has been less than respectful. In my view, that has to change. It's no longer acceptable. We need to have a say in how our lives are governed and how our territories are governed. So, there's a new relationship that's required, absolutely.

Can you speak a little bit about some of the changes your fisheries have been through?

The fishing boats are tied up where once they were active. Our people taught the newcomers to these lands where the fish were, how to fish, and the movements of the fish throughout the territories. Perhaps it's been to the fisheries demise, because the fisheries have been overexploited. They have been fished to unsustainable levels. The clear cutting that's happened in the mountains resulted in the devastation of fish bearing streams that we're now having to work hard to clean up and rehabilitate.

Finfish aquaculture is just one more industrial activity that's come along that was implemented without the permission of people and our chiefs. So, recently we undertook to sit down with industry. With mutual respect, we have signed protocol agreements in our territories where the recognition of our chiefs, and our chiefs' responsibility to care for our territories and our people, has been a quoted respect. It's a new relationship, so time will tell whether it will have the desired effect. If that is a true respect for all living things, our marine life, and the impact that finfish aquaculture has on our territories.

We also recognize that we have other people involved, non-First Nations people that are operating in our territories with permission of their laws. So, we have two sets of laws where we have to find a way for them to coexist. The laws of our chiefs, the instructions that I was given by my late grandfather instruct us. We can't let go of our responsibility to our territories. So, we have to find a way to reason with one another, to sit down and find a way to coexist. To do so in a manner that cares for our people, that is gentle on people, but hard on issues.

It requires us to find ways to care for the environment, and we absolutely have to find ways to have First Nations people participating in the economic fabric of this country. One in which we've been in the margins; we've been outside of the economic and social fabric of Canada. We still live under the Indian Act, and still are not recognized as legal owners of this land that I'm sitting on. This is another battle we have with the federal and provincial government. It is for our ownership, our rights, and our title to be recognized.

The agreement we've forged and signed recently with the local fish farm industry is a step towards a new relationship to try to work together to determine if it's possible to have a sustainable finfish aquaculture business so that my people can have jobs. So, that my people can feel good about contributing to something that is moving towards something sustainable and healthy. Where they're not receiving social assistance and their sense of self and sense of confidence can be enhanced.

We have all of our fish boats, with the exception of very few, tied up. Our fishermen aren't working and haven't been working for years. Others have benefited from the wealth of resources of our territories. There is a change in the relationship that my people have that First Nations people have with industry and with government, and we're in the middle of that change and tension right now. Leadership during difficult times is essential; it's crucial. Our leaders with industry, government, and First Nations step forward to find ways to coexist, to find ways to recognize one another in a respectful manner.

A transnational corporation has actually recognized your sovereignty of your community here. Could this leverage you have be a benefit to the earth?

We're in a globalized world now. The finfish aquaculture businesses in our territories, not unlike the forest companies, are transnational companies operating within the scope of free trade agreements that have seemingly allowed unfettered access to our natural resources in our territories. The protocol we've signed with the local fish farm company, which is owned by a transnational Scandinavian-based country, has recognized our chiefs. They have recognized our responsibility to care for our territories, which the courts of Canada have recognized as well. It's only the provincial and federal governments that have been, in a formal manner, truly and mutually respectful, which is the responsibility of the chiefs to care for the territory.

There is some irony through a very difficult process of conflict with natural resource companies, industries owned by transnational foreign-owned companies, that has required us to sit down and negotiate with these groups. This is so outsiders can recognize the rights and titles that our chiefs have to these territories. We've got a long battle ahead. It's going to take some time. But, we're confidant that in order to move forward, we need to achieve mutual recognition between our chiefs, our First Nations peoples, and the other levels of government, the younger levels of government.

It seems that it's sort of an agreement to agree, and that it's up to them to show you guys that they are going to go about it in a right way. Will this agreement last? Does it depend on how they will behave?

The agreement that we have is one that requires a level of mutual respect and recognition. It depends how the territories and all living things within the territories that each of us use are respected. What that will require from an Ahousaht First Nation perspective is that our care and concern for the protection and enhancement of our wild-stocks is absolutely essential. It's the heart and soul of our people and has been for many millennia. The territories that were in the waters that are behind me when I was young were teeming with fish. You could seemingly walk across this inlet with the amount of fish, and that's changed substantially and changed dramatically.

Our elders advise us to be very cautious. We have good instruction from our elders that we have to find a way to protect and enhance the natural resources that we have, including our wild fish-stocks. We're not interested in agreements that will destroy our environment. We're interested in conducting research that's going alongside our values, philosophies and worldviews. They should seek to include our place within the ecosystem. Our people have always been embedded within the local ecosystem in one way. The processes, including that associated with finfish aquaculture, are done in a manner, in my view, which do not reflect the integration of the local environment. There's a responsibility that comes along with being a citizen of Ahousaht First Nation, a global citizen, and finfish aquaculture companies should not be exempt from that.

We're hopeful that this agreement can be one that that will work. It's going to require an incredible amount of effort. We know that there are those who would like to see the fish farms gone completely. On the economic side, we know that there are those who espouse a neo-liberal view that would like to see any new level of government, including the resurgence of First Nations governance, done away with for unfettered access to the territories. It's a time in our history when there's tremendous tension and conflict. We're going to make our best effort to make this agreement work. Check back with us in 6 months, a year, 5 years from now and I hope to report that we have a balance of sustainable industry, not just finfish aquaculture, but in forestry, and tourism. This way my people are well taken care of, which is our leader's responsibility, to do his very best to take care of both our people and our territories.

With the resource, I can see how it could be a win-win situation, especially if PNC goes about things in the right way. But how is it going to be a win for your community? What are the changes that you've been through and your needs for having some jobs?

There is potential for jobs and economics, but it's not in isolation of an agreement that seeks to have our cultural resurgence be a part of what this relationship with the fish farms company can potentially contribute to the resurgence of our language. We have environmental issues globally and locally. We also have the potential extinction of my First Nation language. We can't have one issue take precedence and suppress another. First Nations here, Ahousahts, are part of the local resources, and we need to be considered a part of all living things in these territories. There is potential for contributions from the industry if this partnership and protocol is to work, contributions to cultural resurgence directly in the form of funding for language training. We need a place where our elders can gather and share their stories.

That is the foundation of being Ahousaht. If the agreement can contribute to that, if our people can obtain jobs in a finfish aquaculture business that's recognized as sustainable, respectful to the environment, and respectful to our people then that's something they can feel good about, and confident about, which will help pay their bills. The Ahousaht First Nation will not look to a money grab for jobs and revenue at the expense of our territory, or at the expense of our people. We have a contract with our teachings through our ancestors, through my late grandfather, to care for these territories. We must protect the value of these territories within our culture for future generations.

Ahousaht has said no to jobs in other industries, like the forest industry, in favor of protection of the value of the forest for our people now and for future generations. It's something to be taken very seriously. It is not without great caution that we sign an agreement. We know of the kind of thoughts that there are going to be that we've somehow sold out or co-opted into agreeing to something. In some cases, we have an opportunity to learn more about the aquaculture industry, and become informed, just as the aquaculture industry is learning about who we are. It's a new relationship. It's one that's not focused on market economics or jobs; it's about how we coexist together, how we help one another, and how we care for one another.

Those are the values that my ancestors require me to carry forward when sitting down with industry, when sitting down with the other levels of government. My teachings require me to try to find a way to coexist, to demonstrate mutual respect for all living things, which includes non-First Nations people who are now in our territories. We're all here to stay, and we have to find a way to live together, and we need to learn to do that.

Is there anything else, Shawn?

The phrases I have to revisit, the phrases that carry within them a responsibility for our people to seek a balance within all living things in our territories. Our observation with external resource-based companies has been an unbalanced approach. It's been an exploitation of the natural resource at the expense of the rest of the ecology, our people, and including the lack of recognition historically of our rights and responsibilities to our territories. We hope that we've forged and created a protocol with the local fish farm industry that seeks to encourage a balance between the economics of industry, sustainability of the environment, and a real respect and recognition of our interconnectedness with all living things.

We have to find a way to demonstrate that respect. The companies have been operating without our contribution, without our participation, and without our approval. This protocol is a step towards finding a way that we can contribute to this and work on it together. It's the process of recognizing the humanness of the people who are involved. These are not demons, these are human beings operating in a market economy. They conduct affairs and conduct business as they control what they're allowed to do. We're here saying things need to change, things will change in our territories, and I applaud the local industry for signing into an agreement that seeks to put equal pressure on each party to respond to the interests and needs of the other. The work has just begun.

That's something that isn't said very often, and I think it's profound.

I have to revisit another phrase that I said earlier, to have a responsibility to care for, and in fact, love one another. The responsibility of First Nations leadership is to demonstrate the care and the love for the people in the territories of which they were raised with, and of which those teachings have been passed along from generation to generation. It's a cultural social contract that the chief should have a love for his people and his territories.
To participate in any industry is doing so with the knowledge and understanding that those industries are not always approaching it with the love and a care for territories, or a love and a care, in this case, for First Nations people. In some cases, the heart and a love for the territories don't enter into a market economy operation. We hope that our protocol can encourage, in our territories that the heart be present when we're seeking to care for our people and our territories. That it'll balance out the interests of market economics.