Toronto Star Opinion Column by Bob Hepburn
Bernie LePage is a big, quiet-spoken Métis commercial fisherman who normally keeps his emotions well under control.
But when the Crown earlier this month suddenly dropped charges against him of overfishing on Georgian Bay, LePage, 56, broke down and wept openly in a packed Orillia courtroom.
The Crown’s decision, which came two days into his trial, was a huge relief for the Penetanguishene-area man, one of the last commercial fishermen on Georgian Bay.
But for Ontario’s Métis, the case has sparked widespread anger and prompted fresh allegations of systematic discrimination and harassment against the Métis community by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR).
Indeed, the anger is so raw that the provincial government could soon see itself sued for harassment unless it deals with the Métis concerns.
“Without question, there is a pattern of discrimination that has been happening for a long time with Métis commercial fishermen from one end of the province to the other,” Gary Lipinski, president of the Métis Nation of Ontario, said in an interview.
Like LePage, many Métis have faced “years of harassment,” he said.
“It’s constant harassment, day in, day out, designed for one thing, for people to throw in the towel and walk away from a good way of life.”
Ontario is home to some 73,000 Métis, who are people of mixed native and European blood. For decades, they have complained that successive governments have refused to recognize their constitutionally guaranteed rights to hunt and fish.
Those grievances have continued to this day despite a historic 2003 decision by the Supreme Court of Canada that Métis can claim an aboriginal right to hunt for food, despite provincial agreements on Métis hunting and fishing, and despite a 2007 probe by the Ontario ombudsman into how MNR officials dealt with complaints by Métis families.
The case against LePage started in 2007 when MNR officers accused him of exceeding his quota of lake trout. LePage was actually fishing for whitefish and the lake trout, which he normally releases, were inadvertently trapped in his nets.
The “over quota” charge involved a ridiculously small amount of fish — less than three kilograms. In most such small cases, MNR does not prosecute commercial fishermen, Lipinski said. But in LePage’s case, they decided to go to trial.
On Aug. 12, the second day in court, the Crown withdrew the charge when it realized that as a member of the Ontario Commercial Fisheries Association, LePage has a “slime and ice” allowance that lets him exceed his quota by 3.3 per cent of his total catch. As charged, he was less than 1 per cent over his quota.
Lipinski said the decision to put LePage through four years of legal hell over a few pounds of fish is yet another case of harassment against Métis.
Lipinski cited cases from Rainy River to Thunder Bay and Georgian Bay of alleged discrimination against Métis, including one case where conservation officers reportedly threatened to burn down a Métis fishing camp.
Ministry officials vehemently deny any wrongdoing.
“There is no ongoing pattern of harassment” either in LePage’s case or elsewhere, said Jolanta Kowalski, an MNR spokeswoman. “The ministry is committed to conducting its business in an equitable, non-discriminatory manner.”
It would be a mistake, though, for Queen’s Park to dismiss these concerns as coming from just a small vocal group of disaffected individuals.
That’s because last weekend the Métis Nation of Ontario, which represents all Métis in the province, passed a resolution at its annual meeting in Parry Sound demanding a full judicial inquiry into the ministry’s actions. The ministry “has continually harassed, bullied and prosecuted Métis for exercising their traditional customs, practices and traditions,” the resolution stated.
If no judicial inquiry is ordered, then the Ontario Human Rights Commission will be asked to launch a full-scale review.
Clearly it’s time Queen’s Park investigated these complaints. They are a major stain on the province’s relations with all aboriginal people.
They deserve to be taken seriously — and corrected as soon as possible.