Hunters and Gatherers is series looking at hunting and fishing in northern Ontario, how Indigenous rights can divide people, how some northerners find ways to share the resources and what sharing the land means for reconciliation.
No matter which of its shores you live by and whether or not your ancestors lived there as well, the pickerel (or walleye) of Lake Nipissing are treasured.
But the argument over who is allowed to catch those fish, when they’re allowed to catch them and how much they can pull into their boat has for decades driven those neighbours against each other.
That’s largely because the pickerel population has been shrinking. Nipissing First Nation has blamed over-fishing on tourists and recreational anglers, while the businesses that rely on the lake blame First Nations commercial fishing.
Many want to define this conflict along stark racial lines, but there are lots of different perspectives.
Scott McLeod grew up fishing on Lake Nipissing, like almost everyone else in his First Nation.
But he left to work in fish management for the Ministry of Natural Resources—which many in his community saw as the enemy, the taker of their rights.
McLeod is now the chief of Nipissing First Nation and brokered a deal with his former employer, the memorandum of understanding or MOU that sees the two sides working more closely together.
They now share fish harvesting information, do enforcement patrols together and if a First Nations fisherman is violating the rules set by the band, they can now face provincial charges.
McLeod admits that some in Nipissing First Nation disagree with the new regime and he’s had to do a lot of explaining.
“I’ve always been one to err on the side of the fish and not the political winds,” McLeod says.
He says the agreement is a sign of self-government, the recognition of their control over the lake and their rights to the fish.
“They want equality and equality to them is apparently us following their rules,” he says.
“It’s the same dirt that we walk on, but it’s not necessarily the same nation, and that’s just how it is.”