Fish, Law, and Colonialism: The Legal Capture of Salmon in British Columbia


306 pages
Contains Photos, Illustrations, Maps, Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-8020-3598-1
DDC 343.711'07692756




Reviewed by David Mardiros

David Mardiros is a lawyer and anthropological consultant in Terrace,
British Columbia.


Conflict over land and resources between Aboriginal people and the
settler society in British Columbia has been the subject of many books
in the past 15 years. Douglas Harris takes a more focused approach to
the issues by looking at the historical circumstances surrounding the
capture of Aboriginal fisheries by, first, British colonial law and,
later, the Canadian state in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The core of the book is an analysis of Aboriginal fisheries in two
regions of the province. Harris’s chosen “case studies”—Babine
Lake (in the north central part of the province) and Cowichan River (on
Vancouver Island)—serve to describe some of the geographic and
cultural diversity of the province through an analysis of the impact of
colonialism on Aboriginal fisheries in two very different regions. As
Harris points out, the population density on the Northwest Coast, a
result primarily of the richness of the salmon fishery, was particularly
unsuited to a colonial legal regime based on fisheries models developed
in Eastern Canada and the Great Lakes.

Besides describing the process of colonization, both studies illustrate
the diversity and complexity of the Aboriginal responses to outside
incursions, responses that ranged (and continue to range) from
resistance to adaptation and accommodation. It is also clear from the
historical sources Harris cites that many government officials of the
time recognized that sophisticated systems of proprietary rights over
the fishing resources existed throughout the province before the arrival
of the settlers.

The final chapter of the book provides a very useful overview of recent
literature on the imposition of British law in a variety of regions of
the world. While the work is primarily written for legal scholars and
historians who are interested in the conflict between customary and
colonial law, the recent decision of the Department of Fisheries to
discontinue the Aboriginal-only commercial fishery in British Columbia
makes this book an extremely timely read. As a result it will be of
interest to a general readership that may be interested in understanding
the historical and legal roots of what is likely to be a serious
conflict in West Coast fisheries.


Harris, Douglas C., “Fish, Law, and Colonialism: The Legal Capture of Salmon in British Columbia,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed April 23, 2024,