How my adamance may have saved Treaty 3’s fishing rights

As told to Daniel Adam, Summer Staff Writer.

Editor’s note: Murray Bombay was one of the speakers at a ceremony where an original Treaty 3 medal was returned to its rightful home on Rainy River First Nations. In honour of Indigenous History Month and Treaty 3’s 150th anniversary, Bombay sat down with the Times to recount how his journey through the provincial court systems became part of the national story of the fight for treaty harvesting rights in Canada.

My name is Murray Bombay and I am a member of Rainy River First Nations. Nearly 40 years ago, I was charged with multiple fishing violations that Treaty 3 should have exempted me from. This is my story.

In the early ’80s, my wife Lou Ann and I took up spring fishing so that we could earn some extra income. It’s a yearly thing that happens in our community — people will harvest fish for barter. Though a lot of it was for food, a lot of it was also for barter since we had a commercial fishing license.

Soon came spring of 1985. We didn’t know it at the time, but there was an ongoing investigation regarding our community’s activities. Conservation officers from Kenora had been watching us for almost two weeks.

I believe I was the first one they made contact with. They told me they had launched an investigation and gotten evidence of us doing our activities. We weren’t hiding it. We were using gillnets and dip nets to harvest our fish. We were out of season for walleye. We were selling our fish.

They got photos of me with one hand holding out a bag of fish and my other hand receiving some cash.

Right away I got angry — I knew we had a treaty right to do what we were doing. It was entrenched in Treaty 3. They gave 12 of us summonses on three charges: fishing out of season, fishing with a prohibited net, and selling fish out of season.

We were dumbfounded.

I made up my mind the moment those guys left. I was going to ignore them. I took the summons and ripped it up. I wasn’t going to comply.

A couple weeks later, Treaty 3 Grand Chief Peter Kelly called me. He had heard about the charges.

When I told him I wasn’t going to court, he disapproved. He said the Government of Ontario was challenging our treaty rights by laying these charges.

He went on to say that Treaty 3 Nation is going to stand behind us. But he wanted my wife and I to take the lead.

After he finished explaining that this was a challenge to our treaty rights, I agreed. They said would cover all our legal costs. They already had a lawyer lined up by the name of Don Colborne.

Lou Ann and Murray Bombay observe the Manitou Rapids on Thursday, June 8, 2023. In this spot almost 40 years ago, conservation officers surveilled and convicted the Bombays and 10 others of fishing violations that went against their Treaty 3 rights. —Daniel Adam photo

The court date came in spring 1986. It was a five-day trial. Some of our elders and some historians bore witness about the treaty and how it was worded, clearly defining that fishing was our right and that we won’t give that up.

But at the end of it all, we were found guilty on all charges. The judge imposed a $50 fine for fishing out of season, a $50 fine for using a gillnet and dip net, and a $1 fine for selling our fish out of season.

Again, I said “We’re not paying this.”

After the ruling was handed down, we had a meeting. Our lawyer said the next step is to appeal. We needed to go to the District Court, which was just up the stairs from where we were.

But it took two years to get there.

Come the court date in 1988, my wife and I weren’t even physically there. It was just our lawyer and the judge. The convictions were upheld. So I said “What’s the next step? We can’t stop.”

Our lawyer said the Ontario Court of Appeals in Toronto. So again, he went on our behalf. By then, it was 1993. We just sat by the phone that day, waiting for the call.

Late in the afternoon, he phoned us and said our conviction had been overturned. The charges had been thrown out.

That fall, Grand Council Treaty 3 invited us to Eagle Lake. They wanted to honour us for fighting this case. That’s when we shared that our treaty rights had been challenged by the provincial government.

It seemed kind of funny — one office of the Ministry of Natural Resources issued us a license to sell our fish, and another office launched an investigation to lay charges against us.

If the Ontario Court of Appeals had not overturned our conviction, we would have appealed again. And I hate to think if the Supreme Court would have upheld it — everybody in Treaty 3 Nation would have lost our treaty fishing rights.

But we weren’t going to stop. We were going to go right to the end.

In closing, I want this story to be shared. I don’t want it to be forgotten. Hopefully something like this will never happen again.