Q&A with Roger Dunlop: A Conversation About Marine Affairs, Environmental Justice, and the Payoff of Persistence

For this interview, I had the pleasure of interviewing Roger Dunlop, a biologist at the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council’s fisheries department, called Uu-a-thłuk, which means “taking care of” in Nuu-chah-nulth. On Vancouver Island, there are fourteen individual Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations. The Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council (NTC) exists to support the Nuu-chah-nulth people and territories. Specifically, the Uu-a-thłuk Department provides support to “increase Nuu-chah-nulth access to, and management of, sea resources and build Nuu-chah-nulth capacity to find jobs and careers related to the ocean.”

 I first met Roger while co-developing my masters thesis with Uu-a-thłuk earlier this year. Roger himself is non-Native, but has been welcomed into the Tribes with whom he works, due to his tireless work ethic and efforts to advance Nuu-chah-nulth self-determination and sovereign rights over their fisheries for nearly three decades.

Roger (pictured right) primarily works with the northern Nuu-chah-nulth Nations on Vancouver Island. During the summer and on weekends, you can typically find Roger out on his boat enjoying the beauty of Vancouver Island’s waters! Photo Credit: Uu-a-thłuk


Please tell us a bit about yourself!

I am an immigrant from England. I came to Canada when I was two years old on a boat. After community college, I worked in the oil industry for a while, until I got sick of what they were doing. I moved to the coast from Calgary and did a degree at the University of Victoria.

How did you start working with the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council 27 years ago?

I was living in a tent in Haida Gwaii, being paid little by the government to work on coho salmon and steelhead research. A friend saw the job posting [by the Tribal Council] and sent them a letter of recommendation on my behalf. My friend called and told me I had an interview the next day!

What is the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council’s Uu-a-thłuk initiative?

Uu-a-thłuk is a renaming of the fisheries program that has been here [at the Tribal Council] since the beginning of 1990s. Uu-a-thłuk provides support to Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations in the form of biological support, administrative staff, and mentorship for Nuu-chah-nulth biologists. Our mission is to help Nuu-chah-nulth people develop fisheries, capacities, and skills; they will soon be running it all.

We help Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations develop commercial fisheries because they’ve always had the rights. Historical evidence shows that Captain Cook bought fish from the Nuu-chah-nulth when his crew first came to colonize Canada. Journals of the officers in Cook’s crew includes information about how they bought fish from Nuu-chah-nulth.

Roger’s work allows him to maintain his roots and interests in biology while also helping train future Nuu-chah-nulth ecological scientists. Photo Credit: Uu-a-thluk Facebook Page.


This interview will be featured on the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs website. How do you think your work at the NTC ties into marine affairs (i.e. policy, marine science, environmental justice)?

Influencing policy is a very important concept I have experienced first hand working at the Tribal Council. You’ll probably find that it takes a lot longer than you anticipate to be able to get new information, ideas, and methods across and accepted as science within the policy field. It’s kind of a lesson that people need to learn; if you want to make a change, it can take decades. We need better education and communication if we want to get things done. You can be all excited, but people will brush you off.

People need to know when you’re setting out in marine affairs to make changes that you may come up with a great idea, think it should change the world, but you have to convince all these people that it’s real and worthwhile. It’s challenging. But if you believe in your idea, stick with it, even if it takes a long time.

You have been given a Nuu-chah-nulth name, Uupiihaa. How and why were you given this Nuu-chah-nulth name?

It is the greatest honor I’ve ever received. The ceremony was conducted in front of 100 people. It means “man who has done a great deal”. I helped produce many documents regarding land and water history, and Aboriginal title land rights for northern Nuu-chah-nulth Nations. I think my ability to be tolerant, listen, and handle whatever comes up made me useful to the Tribes I worked with.

I also helped convince the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations to take the Canadian government to court by making them realize how much solid evidence they had on their land and water rights that satisfied requirements for European-style courts. Everyone knows they have the rights, but the Canadian government denies it.

Mowachaht/Muchalaht fishermen selling wild-caught Chinook to a buyer on Vancouver Island; the right to do so was hard-fought by Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations and Uu-a-thłuk. Photo Credit: Roger Dunlop


Canada has seen an uptick in highly publicized disputes between Indigenous peoples and the Canadian government. How does your work within Uu-a-thłuk relate to environmental justice?

First Nations’ constitutional rights (whether recognized by the government or not) and governance practices are far superior to our Canadian laws and environmental regulations. Even more so in the last 25 years, Canadian environmental laws and regulations have been geared towards enabling development rather than protection. A lot of regulations around lobbying are archaic and run by logging barons, and the government is their lapdog. First Nations can prove or have proved their rights to make substantial changes. Their rights are really rooted in the foundations of the cultures, rooted in their Creator and the earth, whereas Canada’s comes from the Church and the Crown.

Messaging exists that causes people to think that destroying the earth is the right thing to do. First Nations have the ability to stop the government in cases where other citizens cannot. Well, maybe not stop, but they can make positive changes where it otherwise wouldn’t happen. Unfortunately, First Nations have far too many fires to fight. In Canada, the Crown controls marine areas, and Aboriginal water title claims are not yet fully claimed. It is a dense process to litigate in practice, but it can be used as a last resort to stop a large development.

* Editor’s note: see here, here, here, here, and here for examples of how Indigenous peoples are challenging the Canadian government on land and resource rights.

What has been the most enriching aspect of your job?

You are making me tear up! Going down to the dock and seeing all of the families fishing together, getting together at the docks and selling all their fish; that is the best part of my job. It is amazing to go down and see all of these people get together in the morning in an open boat, catching fish and unloading, looking at what everyone caught and having a good time. These cultures and cultural practices were once taken away and systematically removed by the Canadian government.

After years and years of work, the rights of the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations were finally recognized and implemented to the tone of the law by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. We know that the rights had always been there, but we had to go through a long period of fighting it out in the court system, for over 10 years.

Now that those rights are recognized and being implemented, the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations have been able to start building their own economy. It is the culmination of a lot of work, encouragement, and effort by a lot of people. We are starting to see what it actually meant in the end. It comes from persistence, from a lot of people putting a huge amount of effort in to restore a small piece of what was rightfully theirs.