Woman cleared of charges, but analysts decry legal ‘humiliations’

Published in Windspeaker newspaper | June 2013 | Circulation: 145,000

Kwitsel Tatel (Patricia Kelly) of Stó:lo nation. Photo by David P. Ball

Kwitsel Tatel (Patricia Kelly) of Stó:lo nation. Photo by David P. Ball

After nearly a decade fighting criminal fishing charges in B.C. courts, Stó:lo nation’s Kwitsel Tatel (Patricia Kelly) won not only an absolute discharge on May 9, but now the government must pay her nearly $2,500 for seizing her crate of salmon in 2004, accusing her of selling it illegally.

But the band’s senior policy advisor told Windspeaker that the “humiliations” the woman faced over the course of 200 court appearances, in particular an invasive anal-vaginal cavity search after she attempted to walk into the courtroom playing a hand drum, should never have happened in the first place.

“There’s no need for First Nations on lower Fraser River to face the types of charges that Patricia had to face,” Ernie Crey told Windspeaker. “The government can, with the goal of ameliorating disadvantage or poverty, reach an agreement to cover the sale of salmon.

“She had a lot of sympathy about the predicament she was in; that’s an understatement. This is not a woman with a lot of money. She’s a single mom with a couple kids who were quite young when these charges were first brought against her.”

And though she fought the case on her own, Crey said she is far from alone in being penalized for trying to subsist on the Fraser River fishery, an issue that has raised ongoing tensions with non-Aboriginal fishers in the region.

“There are a number of Stó:lo people who have been charged or faced charges,” Crey added. “Some have been fined, and some have been jailed.

“That doesn’t make Patricia unusual. What makes her situation unique is that she fought these charges, basically, on her own for a decade.”

Indeed, as her nine-year-long case came to a close on May 9, Kwitsel Tatel told Chief Justice Thomas Crabtree the legal battle has cost her dearly.

“I’ve suffered politically, socially, emotionally, economically,” she told the court.

In an earlier interview with Windspeaker, she said that her battle for fishing rights is part of the larger work of decolonization.
“As a Coast Salish woman, that means to begin to think on your own two feet and live how you want to live,” she said. “It should be a choice.

“Right now, everybody is hurt by these policies. I personally went through a stand-off at my house over my fishing rights… We’re working at learning our language and eating our foods. We need the ability to live happy, healthy lives.”

For Bill Gallagher, an Aboriginal legal expert and author of Resource Rulers: Fortune & Folly on Canada’s Road to Resources, the Kelly case raises important questions about the promise–and costs–of fighting in the courts.

“This lady is a force of nature,” Gallagher told Windspeaker. “She kept this up and prevailed.

“It’s an amazing story given what she’s had to endure. It’s strange that somebody would be incarcerated the way that she was.”

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