Swimming upstream: For B.C.’s Cowichan Tribes, life by the river fraught by climate change and a fight for return of their chinook salmon tradition

Toronto Star, Sun., Nov. 28, 2021

Even though chinook stocks have returned to historical levels, tribes still being limited to catching a total of 200 fish for ceremonial purposes.

George, the Tribes’ director of land and government is assessing flood damage, helping evacuated residents settle in hotels and communicating a boil water advisory — his steady voice hiding the distress he feels. “Our people have been through so much.”

The floodwaters may have receded somewhat, but life by the river is more difficult than ever. Cowichan Tribes, the largest First Nation band in British Columbia, have “lived on the river and the foreshore forever,” says George. But the Tribes must now cope with the harsh impacts of climate change as well as the enduring effects of colonialism.

“We are trying to get land back that was expropriated from us in various ways in the past century. We are trying to move past the Indian Act, because it’s terrible,” says George. “And, we have the salmon.”

Della Rice-Sylvester, Cowichan Tribes medicine woman and plant knowledge keeper, leads a nature walk on Cowichan River Day, with Cowichan Tribes fisheries technicians collecting salmon broodstock in the background.

George and a team of people who care about the chinook salmon in the Cowichan River — local residents, recreational anglers, industrial stakeholders and three levels of government — have worked for more than 15 years to bring the Cowichan peoples’ traditional food source back from the brink of extinction. It’s a model of co-operation that experts say should be put to use by other groups across Canada.

But even though chinook stocks have returned to historical levels for five consecutive years, the Cowichan Tribes are still being denied the right to catch them — permitted to harvest just 200 annually for ceremonial purposes by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), says George. It used to be more than 200 chinook per family that George remembers. Now, it’s just 200 for the whole band. “That number is not realistic,” George says. “We have 5,000 members. And you are going to let us take 200 pieces?”

George remembers smoking chinook in his family’s smokehouse on the Cowichan Tribes Reserve on Vancouver Island. It was the late 1960s and the smokehouse had rafters 15 feet high and could smoke 200 fish at a time. The second youngest of 12 children, George’s job was to collect the fish guts in a wheelbarrow and bury them in the ground.

“It wasn’t the most popular task,” says George. But “when the salmon were in, everyone was involved,” he says. “There would be 15 of us doing all the preparation, gutting and hanging.”


Chinook salmon are a critical source of food and cultural significance for Cowichan Tribes, according to Tribes leaders. But climate change, clear cutting of the watershed, and commercial overfishing depleted the stock by the early 1980s, says George. “It wasn’t really worth it to have a smoke house” by then, he adds. “You were lucky to get even a couple salmon at a time anyway.”

Dave Gunn remembers when “the richest kids in the world lived in Cowichan.” Gunn, who grew up alongside the Cowichan Tribes in the Cowichan Valley and is now a river fishing guide, says when he was young in the 1970s, boys “quit school because they could get a man’s job and make a man’s money.” They were into buying cars, he says. “Everyone had money and everybody had work.” Gunn worked in mills, on rigging crews and tree felling.

Dave Gunn, who grew up alongside the Cowichan Tribes in Cowichan Valley and is now a river fishing guide, remembers as a young man how "the richest kids in the world lived in Cowichan."

Today, Duncan, B.C., the town beside the Cowichan Tribes Reserve, is one of the poorest towns in British Columbia, with average household incomes of just over half the provincial average. Most of the industry has gone and alcoholism is rampant, according to the Provincial Health Services Authority. More than a quarter of adults have not completed high school, according to Statistics Canada.

It was against this backdrop of poverty and the importance of chinook as a food source that the Cowichan Tribes elders and biologists collaborated to save the salmon with Paul Rickard, a volunteer with the B.C. Wildlife Federation; Wilf Luedke, the DFO area chief for South Coast Area Stock Assessment; Tom Rutherford, the then DFO community adviser, and others in the community who cared about the salmon.

A drought in 2003 that left insufficient water in the river for the salmon to swim upstream was the catalyst for action, Rutherford recalls.

“We had to put the salmon in trucks and truck them upstream,” he says. “We needed a plan.”

The group began a series of workshops — later called the Stewardship Round Table — to “talk about where the fish spawned, reared, and how they returned back up the river,” says Rickard. The discussions involved the local Catalyst Paper mill, which owns a water licence and controls the river flow, he says. And the Cowichan Tribes presented a “valuable and well-thought-out document that formed the basis for the eventual Cowichan Chinook Rebuilding Plan.”

The group’s first project was to stop a steep clay bank, Stoltz Bluff, from sliding into the river and causing high levels of silt and smothering chinook eggs in the gravel downstream, recalls Rickard.

The Stewardship Round Table stopped a steep clay bank, Stoltz Bluff, from sliding into the river and smothering chinook eggs in the gravel downstream.

“It became the largest restoration project of its kind in B.C.,” he says, and resulted in “huge gains in fish egg survival,” that demonstrated the community’s ability to work together that carries on today.

Theirs is a model of reconciliation that works, say members of the team. No grandiose gestures, but many small joint activities, over years, undid some of the devastating effects of colonization and the destruction of the watershed.

“Reconciliation is not just a high-level promise,” says resident Danielle Burton “but a series of things you get up in the morning and do.”

Despite progress of the Stewardship Round Table, Cowichan chinook stocks fell to a low of 500 natural spawners in 2009 from 10,000 in the late 1980s, according to DFO numbers. A Harvest Round Table co-chaired by Larry George and the DFO was launched to bring Cowichan Tribes together with commercial and recreational fishers to determine appropriate levels of salmon harvest. Setting aside their differences, the group ultimately agreed to a total closing of chinook fishing, recalls George.


“The salmon were endangered, and we had to do whatever we could and that included stopping our members from fishing,” says George. It was not easy to pass the motion through the Cowichan Tribal Council, but a two-year ban was put in place.

It was a terrible time, George recalls. “My staff and I went through hell for two years. Our community was so upset. We were the worst people ever.”

One of those staff was Cowichan natural resource expert Tim Kulchyski who tells the story of his uncle whose dugout canoe was struck by so many salmon it shook as he paddled through Cowichan Bay to visit his grandfather who told him: “You should have seen what it used to look like, grandson.”

Tim Kuchyski, left, and Tom Rutherford, Executive Director of the Cowichan Watershed Board, teach children about salmon conservation on Cowichan River Day in September.

Kulchyski’s four children are learning to speak Hul’q’umi’num’, the language his “great-great-grandfather urged (his) grandfather never to speak” for fear it would get him killed in the 1920s. Kulchyski’s mother spoke Hul’q’umi’num’ as a small child but was forced to forget it at the Mission residential school she attended from the age of nine.

Cowichan Tribes’ struggles with the existential threats to their people and food source are long-standing, explains Kulchyski. Cowichan Chief Charlie Tsulpi’multw travelled with a delegation to England and petitioned King Edward VII on land and fishing rights in 1906. Still, 37 waterfalls along the Cowichan River were dynamited to facilitate flotillas of old-growth logs at the turn of the 20th century, he says. “It scoured the salmon spawning beds” and eliminated the “special trees for large dugout canoes with grain that didn’t split in water.”

Kulchyski and Wilf Luedke, both founding members of the Cowichan Stewardship Round Table from traditionally opposite sides of fishing issues — First Nation versus government — agree the success of the Round Table stemmed from looking at the broader Cowichan River watershed and not just the salmon. “The salmon is the canary in the coal mine for the entire watershed and environment,” says Luedke.

“To know and understand the interaction of all the species is essential,” Kulchyski says. Levels of eelgrass and herring, critical to chinook development as well as predators that consume chinook, are closely monitored.

And an increasing presence of seals and sea lions migrating north with warming sea temperatures and consuming salmon is upsetting the balance of the ecosystem, says Rutherford. The region’s beloved resident orcas also depend on chinook to thrive, according to the Marine Mammal Research Unit at the University of British Columbia.

South Vancouver Island's beloved resident orcas depend on chinook to thrive.

But the Cowichan Stewardship Round Table and the later-developed Cowichan Watershed Board, which oversees watershed governance, have been as much about people as they have been about wildlife.

The groups have made steps on a difficult path toward reconciliation in the community, says Kulchyski. “It arose by necessity because we were so close to losing those salmon stocks in the Cowichan.” Working together was a clash of cultures at first, he says. In Cowichan teachings, people would come to a decision, knowing all the people at the table, and their ancestors, he says. “It took time to build relationships and trust and to move out of an era of distinct distrust.”

The Cowichan Watershed Board works toward reconciliation in small but active ways, according to members. The group includes Indigenous traditional knowledge in its technical working groups, recognizes Cowichan Tribes territory and authority beyond reserve lands and embraces Tribes’ culture and languages in meetings and events. Indigenous and non-Indigenous leaders take Hul’q’umi’num’ classes and open meetings in both languages.

It was important to break out of traditional silos in a respectful and inclusive way to restore the watershed, agree Genevieve Singleton and Parker Jefferson, the current co-chairs of the Stewardship Round Table. Parker recollects that “we used to have some hot tempers, but that doesn’t seem to happen now.” The table members know each other personally now. “We go around the table and magic happens,” says Singleton.

Singleton says she feels called to learn Hul’q’umi’num’. “I hear and feel nature. I can feel it speak to me. I want to learn the language of the place where I live.”

An increasing number of seals and sea lions migrating north with warming sea temperatures are upsetting the balance of the ecosystem, experts say.

Martin Paish, a director of the Sport Fishing Institute of B.C., hopes the Cowichan co-operation can be a model for other communities. “It changed the hearts and minds of people,” says Paish. “Everyone set aside their desire to take fish and worked together to recover them.”

Paish says non-Indigenous people have learned about the importance of fish for the Cowichan Tribes.

“It’s about more than meat. It’s cultural and spiritual for the First Nation. The act of fishing is as important as the volume of fish.”

Paul Sprout, the most senior Department of Fisheries leader in British Columbia from 2000 to ’09, goes further.

“Habitat issues can’t be solved by the regulator,” says Sprout, who also worked in Fisheries in Ottawa and Atlantic Canada and adds that the country needs a different governing structure for fish habitat management nationwide.

Sprout gives credit to the local Cowichan team for creating a solution that he thinks should be modelled in all of Canada. “All I did was not get in the way.”

Sprout and others do not see a sound conservation reason now for DFO to deny chinook to the Cowichan Tribes.

“The Cowichan chinook have been recorded in the last few years in the 20,000s (three times the 6,500 target set by DFO) and it took a community pulling together to do it,” says Rickard.

Letters from local residents, regional anglers, as well as Cowichan Tribes, plead with DFO: “The Cowichan Round Table has facilitated an unprecedented recovery that should be held up as a model,” writes Grant MacPherson of the Sidney Anglers Association. “Why has (DFO) not approved the increase of FSC (Aboriginal Food, Social, and Ceremonial) Chinook … allocation requested by the Cowichan Tribes?”

After several attempts to contact DFO officials at three levels, Lara Sloan, DFO communications adviser replied in an email that the “Cowichan Chinook FSC allocation reflects the depressed status of the Chinook stock in the Cowichan River. It has been rebuilding, which has allowed for additional harvest to be considered.”

Lydia Hwitsum, former chief of Cowichan Tribes, says they've been "critically alienated from food security."

Lydia Hwitsum, former chief of Cowichan Tribes and founding co-chair of the Watershed Board, is outraged. Hwitsum is proud of the community’s partnership on the watershed and feels upholding the restrictions to the Tribes’ traditional food source undermines the sustainability and integrity of the Tribes. “Our people have been critically alienated from food security.”

Larry George is upset too. The Harvest Round Table members came to the table believing they could talk and make decisions together, he says. “We have all this discussion, come to a consensus, then DFO goes away and says, ‘Well, sorry.’”

Salmon conservation is also hard on commercial fishers, as commercial catching methods are incompatible with sustainability in the Cowichan, according to experts. “I am unable to speak rationally to any issues involving the DFO because I am filled with rage,” Ryan McEachern, a commercial fisher who participated in the Harvest Round Table, wrote in an email. “The DFO has recently decided to destroy my livelihood, my way of life, and my family business that we have grown for four generations.”

The Cowichan people are doing what needs to be done in the midst of horrible poverty, says former chief Hwitsum.

After the floods, Canadians have seen a barrage of news report about roads being closed and gravel on the highway, says Rutherford. “Meanwhile, we’ve got dozens and dozens of First Nations people who are restricted to living on a flood plain. They are out of their homes, living in a drafty community hall.”

But the Cowichan Tribes band are resilient — and forgiving.

“Today the sun is shining, and we are thankful that we have a reprieve and Mother Earth is taking a chance to soak up some of the rainfall,” says Hwitsum.

The future is what you make it, says Tim Kulchyski. “It is all about how you think and what you want to represent. A single person can change another person’s world view.”

Kulchyski tells his children that reconciliation is about developing an understanding and a relationship where there isn’t one.


“There are a million ends of disconnect,” he says. But the Stewardship Round Table has been providing connections where there were none. “We now have friends here in the valley so that it is not just the Cowichan voice, it is the broader voice.”

Katharine Lake Berz is a management consultant, writer and a fellow in the Fellowship in Global Journalism at the University of Toronto.

Document Date: 28 Nov 2021