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Indigenous women respond to fisheries conflict and catalyze change in governance on Canada’s Pacific Coast


While the agency of individuals has been identified as a key factor in triggering governance transformations in social-ecological systems, more research attention is needed on how the social position of the actors involved influences these processes of change. Here, we highlight how the unique position of Indigenous women in a recent fishery conflict brought strength to this resource struggle and led to changes in the management of Pacific herring (Clupea pallasii) on the Central Coast of British Columbia, Canada. Through 18 semi-structured interviews with Heiltsuk women and men involved in this fishery conflict, we identified important actions taken by women in the community, which contributed to advancing the preconditions for transformation of the existing governance system. Heiltsuk women took on key leadership roles, increasing social cohesion, facilitating the flow of information, and negotiating among those holding power and conflicting objectives. Viewed through the framework of transformative change in social-ecological systems, women demonstrated strategic agency in challenging colonial governance regimes and catalyzing change. We relate these findings to theoretical understandings of women in environmental justice movements and activism and underscore the importance of Indigenous women as agents of change in their communities and as important actors in fisheries governance transformations. These leadership roles must be recognized and supported to navigate towards natural resource sustainability and social justice, globally, as well as reconciliation for past injustices, nationally.

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Fig. 1


  1. In this paper, we use the term “Indigenous” to refer to all peoples who trace their ancestry to the original populations of Canada, except when referring to the Canadian legal context (e.g., Aboriginal fishing rights or licenses) or to a specific Indigenous group in Canada (e.g., the Heiltsuk Nation).

  2. “Indian Band” is a legal term used under Canada’s Indian Act to describe groups of status Indians. This term was used here in reference to the legislated access by Indigenous peoples to fisheries resources as delineated by Federal fisheries policy at the time.


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We are grateful for the guidance and support received from the Heiltsuk Integrated Resource Management Department on developing this project. This work would also not have been possible without the insights that were generously shared by Heiltsuk women and men over the course of this study. We would also like to thank all those who reviewed this paper and provided valuable feedback.


This work was supported financially by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada through a Canadian Graduate Doctoral Scholarship to SH and the OceanCanada Partnership led by RS and through a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada Strategic Partnership Grant to AKS.

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Authors and Affiliations



The main author (SH) led this project from inception through to the analysis and writing of this manuscript. The second and third authors (AKS and DN) provided key guidance on developing this project and contributed significantly to the text while PW, KB, and LH made substantive intellectual contributions and RS provided analytic support and project oversight. All authors critically reviewed the text and agree with the analysis and conclusions.

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Correspondence to Sarah Harper.

Ethics declarations

This project was developed with the consent and ongoing input from the Heiltsuk Nation (i.e., from the Heiltsuk Integrated Management Department, the Heiltsuk Tribal Council, and the women and men who participated in this study). Ethics protocols were followed throughout this research, including those set forth by the Heiltsuk Nation, the University of British Columbia, and Simon Fraser University.

Competing interests

The authors declare that they have no competing interests.

Additional information

This paper belongs to Topical Collection (En)Gendering Change in Small-scale Fisheries and Fishing Communities in a Globalized World

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Harper, S., Salomon, A.K., Newell, D. et al. Indigenous women respond to fisheries conflict and catalyze change in governance on Canada’s Pacific Coast. Maritime Studies 17, 189–198 (2018).

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