Flanked by four supporters, James Robert Wadhams refused to enter court until the judge was seated.
A proud Kwakiutl, he descends from the Kwakwaka’wakw, who have fished the strait and hunted in the forests of northern Vancouver Island near Port Hardy and Port McNeil for thousands of years.
In court, he went by the name “Degassis” – his Kwakiutl name, one which he refused to spell because Kwakwala is only spoken and has no alphabet.
He was dressed in black, save for a motif of a bright red eagle feather stitched on the right side of his shirt.
His friend “Kluxsum” joined him on the defence side, to speak and sometimes answer questions from the judge because Wadhams is hard of hearing.
Wadhams’ faces 10 charges under the Fisheries Act for allegedly peddling halibut that had been caught under an aboriginal communal license for food, social, ceremonial purposes.
It is not the first time he been has targeted by the Department of Fisheries.
In 2005, Wadhams was charged after fishery officers observed him and another man selling sockeye salmon to the public in the community of Woss, B.C.
He was fined $5,000 in Port Hardy Provincial Court on Nov. 19, 2008 after pleading guilty to selling fish caught by a harvester without a license authorizing sales.
This time, though, Wadhams refused to enter a plea.
“It’s the things around us that we thrive on and use for our survival,” said Kluxsum, a gaunt man, dressed in baggy jeans and a jacket that bore the picture of an eagle.
“The communal rights, we reserve forever. It is our way of life.”
Coached by a friend who sat in the gallery of Room 2 at Port Coquitlam Provincial Court, Kluxsum fumbled through an argument that contended Canada has no jurisdiction over a Kwakiutl man.
He reached far back in time, pointing to the Magna Carta, an order by Queen Anne, who reigned from 1702 to 1714, and the Royal Proclamation of 1763 to support his stance. The Kwakiutl, he argued, had never ceded their land to the British and had every right to make a living through fishing.
“We are here as conduit, as private representatives, but we are willing to meet with you in a public setting to discuss this matter,” Kluxsum told Judge Daniel Steinberg, a jurist with a bushy, long white beard who bears the calmed, learned look of a Greek philosopher.
He then asked the judge to produce a document to prove he was appointed by the Queen.
“Where does your authority come from?” Kluxsum asked.
The Department of Fisheries and Oceans began a year-and-a-half-long investigation into two fish and chip shop owners, as well as Wadhams after receiving tips from the public on Vancouver Island.
Surveillance was conducted on Wadhams, who was allegedly seen delivering fish to Amy Zhuo Hua Zheng and Michael Kam Fuk Ching, who have since pleaded guilty to the offences.
Ching, who owns Austin Fish and Chips in Valley Fair Mall in Maple Ridge, was fined $5,000 for three Fisheries Act contraventions while Zheng, who owns Austin Fish and Chips in Pitt Meadows, got a $500 fine for two violations.
DFO officials seized Wadhams’ Ford Explorer and fishing boat as part of the investigation.
“We are starving now because of what these people have done,” Wadhams told the court.
“The DFO did come and steal my property, my truck and all my equipment to gather food.”
Wadhams had to hitch-hike from Vancouver Island to make Wednesday’s court appearance.
“What you have done has caused much harm,” said Kluxsum, as the long-winded and confusing legal argument that began at 9:30 a.m. drifted into the lunch hour.
As Judge Steinberg listened, slightly amused, Kluxsum spent a good half-hour reading a four-page long affidavit from Wadhams, word for word, beginning with the address of the notary who drafted it.
Queen’s Counsel Didgy Kier, a grey-haired lawyer who was called to bar in 1962, spent much of the morning looking through his file, waiting patiently for the argument to conclude.
“We don’t belong to any First Nation, to any band. We belong to Mother Earth, the living spirit within,” Kluxsum argued passionately.
“We have always been Kwakiutl. We have never been Canadian.”
The judge politely insisted that everyone on Canadian soil is still subject to its law, whether First Nations or a tourist.
By the end of the day, he had thrown out Wadhams’ argument claiming no jurisdiction, paving the way for a trial to finally begin.