MONTREAL – For more than a century, the Moisie Salmon Club has been among the continent’s most exclusive fishing destinations, a 10-kilometre stretch of river reserved for its wealthy American members.
Anglers reportedly pay annual dues running to six figures to fish the choice Moisie River pools and swap tales over fine food and wine in the lodge. At the airport in nearby Sept-Îles, Que., the June arrival of private jets carrying CEOs and high-powered lawyers is a sign that salmon season has opened.
But on Saturday, members saw their tranquillity broken as a flotilla of boats from the Innu reserve of Uashat mak Mani-utenam motored upstream, caught and cooked a salmon from the private waters and planted the Innu flag on an island across from the lodge.
The Innu claim the private club — known as the Adams Camp after its founder, Boston industrialist Ivers Adams — is on land taken from them, and they want it back.
“We raised the flag to say this is unceded Innu territory,” said Jean-Claude Therrien Pinette, director of the rights and land protection office at Uashat mak Mani-utenam, about 900 kilometres northeast of Montreal.
In addition to eating the salmon, the protesters pulled up to the lodge to read out a declaration affirming their ownership of the waters and shoreline.
Therrien Pinette said his people want to have control over what is acknowledged to be the prime fishing location on the 410-kilometre river, reputed for the size and abundance of Atlantic salmon that return there to spawn.
“We’ve been left with the worst parts of the river, and the rich American big-shots have the best spots. We also want access to the territory,” he said, adding that the Innu would be happy to run a lodge welcoming wealthy Americans.
For the club, the Innu claim is another instalment in the long battle to protect a cherished stretch of the Moisie. In the 1960s, Quebec nationalists began pressuring the province to open up private lakes and rivers to all anglers, but while many private leases were eventually ended, the Moisie Salmon Club survived because it was able to prove ownership.
In the 1990s, a Hydro-Québec project that would have reduced the river’s flow and threatened salmon stocks was shelved following opposition from conservationists.
Yvan Létourneau, the club’s general manager, said he would fear for the salmon if management of the waters were turned over to the Innu.
“They’ve done that on a lot of rivers on the North Shore (of the St. Lawrence River), rivers where there are no more salmon today,” he said. “They are fishing for food. We do almost all catch and release.”
Létourneau said the exclusive club is a benefit to the region, hiring 50 local employees, some of them Innu. He said the club injects $700,000 into the local economy every year through salaries and purchases.
He said club president Donald Christ, a Manhattan lawyer, had a cordial meeting with the band council last week to discuss their claim. But the Saturday protest grew a little more heated as the Innu fished “all over” and stirred up waves. After planting the flag, they told club members: “Hands off. If you touch it, it won’t be good for you guys,” Létourneau said. “We left it there. We don’t want to start a fight.”
In the declaration read to club members, the Innu said they seek to preserve their “sacred connection” to the salmon, which they call utshashumek. They say they are committed to conserving the fish and its habitat. They said they do not recognize the club’s ownership, and they asserted aboriginal title.
Geoffrey Kelley, the Quebec minister responsible for native affairs, said the government takes the Innu claim “very seriously” and is working to set up a meeting with Innu leadership.
The goal would be to establish a shared management of the river, he said.
“I’m very respectful of the fact that there is a First Nation right to traditional activities, and the Innu have been fishing salmon on that river since time immemorial, so that’s something that has to be taken into consideration,” Kelley said.
“The presence of this club is a historic reality as well, which I imagine brings some dollars into the local community and provides some work. … I’m always confident that if we sit around the table we will find a peaceful way forward.”