by Douglas C. Harris. Vancouver: UBC Press 2008. 256pp. Hardcover. $85.00. ISBN: 9780774814195. Paperback. $32.95. ISBN: 9780774814201.

Reviewed by Catherine Lane West-Newman, Department of Sociology, The University of Auckland, New Zealand. Email: l.westnewman [at]


This book is both a history generated for a very specific purpose and a contribution to the steadily growing literature on law and colonialism in the British white settler colonies. It documents relations between the state and First Nations people in British Columbia during the settlement period when indigenous rights to land and to fisheries were, through differing but related processes, substantially alienated to colonial interests. That relationship is revealed as one of conflicting interests between settler state and indigenous inhabitants where incremental policy developments consistently worked to the latter’s disadvantage. The pattern described was replicated with variations in the colonies of Australia, New Zealand, and the United States with substantially similar outcomes of economic resources appropriated and reallocated to the newcomers; a wholesale conversion of natural resources into ‘property’ and the transfer of that property and access to it into the hands of new proprietors.

Douglas C. Harris’ specific purpose here – ‘to address the need for a clearer understanding of the deep historical and legal currents that inform the continuing conflict over the fisheries on Canada’s west coast’ – was formed in connection with the hearings of a set of indigenous fishing rights cases taken in the 1990s. The analysis deals with two specific legal constructs: the Indian reserve (on land) and Indian food fishery that facilitated the colonial state’s control over these crucial economic resources, focusing primarily on the fisheries while delineating the differing conceptually framed legal regimes that were applied to the two. The success of the state’s strategies is marked in a record of diminishing access to economic resources and a corresponding fragility of indigenous capacity for autonomous existence.

This is undoubtedly a quite specialized book, containing an abundance of detailed and specific information, including maps of the traditional fishing territories of a number of tribal groups. It is therefore probably of most particular interest to researchers, and litigators in this area. It will be for scholars and those involved in legal actions over indigenous fishing rights what Maori in New Zealand describe as a taonga (treasured thing), to assist them in their endeavours. For those of us who are more general readers, although much of the detail might be of less interest, there is still some splendid material for anyone with an interest in colonial settlement and indigenous rights issues. Well chosen contemporary quotes encapsulate a world of indigenous experience where colonial comparisons operate always to [*342] the disadvantage of whichever form of ‘native’ existence is currently under scrutiny. A.C. Anderson, who was a Hudson’s Bay Company trader from 1832 to 1858 and became Canada’s first inspector of fisheries in British Columbia, left an example that reveals more of him than of his subjects in his description of the northwest fishing peoples. ‘Procuring an abundant livelihood with little exertion; gross, sensual, and for the most part cowardly – the races who depend entirely, or chiefly, on fishing, and immeasurably inferior to those tribes, who, with nerves and sinews braced by exercise, and minds comparatively ennobled by frequent excitement, live constantly amid war and the chase’ (p.7). By contrast, in contemporaneous British society, fishing for pleasure was a status enhancing prerogative of the landed gentry, associated with the desirable social attributes of patience, contemplation, and sport. But in the kind of paradox so often associated with cultural comparison, subsistence fishing is nevertheless a sign not of courage and resilience but of destitution as well as of laziness.

The place of ideological constructions and influences described in the previous paragraph is clearly and effectively drawn throughout the book, an attribute traceable to the influence of Douglas Hay on the author’s intentions. For this reason Harris’ analysis is clear about the role of power and inequality in the processes described, which adds considerably to the richness of his discussion. The chapters that describe the processes, both intentional and apparently inadvertent, by which the tribal groups and individuals were largely excluded from the progressive commercialization of the fisheries over the relevant time period, are particularly interesting. First Nations people were essentially faced with a legal regime that recognized neither ‘their prior rights to the fisheries or the correlation between land policy and fisheries’ (p.91). This meant that their participation in the development of, for example, the extensive salmon cannery industry was marginal, as workers not owners, and even as workers increasingly supplanted by labour from alternative (and migrant) sources. In the last fifty years of the period described, the Dominion of Canada developed a pattern of fisheries regulation on the Pacific coast that gave Indian fishers only ‘what amounted to a limited and discretionary protection for subsistence fishing,’ effectively opening the fisheries to the newcomers at the same time as the provincial government was opening the land also to settlers. The only argument of any persuasion for native fishery protection was the need to prevent Indian dependence on the state. Harris suggests that the existence of some public and official sympathy with Indians against the operation of laws that prevented them from access to this food source can be seen in the frequent cases of acquittal, but that this was of minimal effect in the light of fishery officials’ use of surveillance techniques and confiscation of gear to prevent the catching of fish for sale. The passing of the native fisheries is summed up in the fact that by the early twentieth century the Department of Fisheries described native fishing as a privilege, not a right.

Overall, this is largely a specialist’s book, but the broad themes encompassed in the introductory and concluding chapters, together with the range and quality of historical evidence, give it an [*343] interest well beyond its primary focus. Harris’ account gives evidence of the efforts of individual administrators who worked with good will and clear intentions to support indigenous special interests in the fisheries but also reveals how these were ultimately thwarted by political and bureaucratic interests, a pattern ubiquitous to the processes of white settler colonization.

© Copyright 2009 by the author, Catherine Lane West-Newman.