'We are going to stop these fish farms'
'We are going to stop these fish farms'
Omega Salmon's hatchery at Ocean Falls has become a lightning rod for
B.C.'s growing aboriginal rebellion
Saturday, March 01, 2003
CREDIT: Ian McAllister, Special to the Sun
Chiefs lined up to speak at a demonstration against fish farms in Ocean
Falls in January.
Chris Cook: "When I look at farm fish, I talk about biochemical warfare."
BELLA BELLA - A little over 120 years ago, a Heiltsuk who ventured into
Nuxalk, Kwakiutl, Tsimshian or Cowichan territory from this rain-slicked
salmon-rich country of peat bogs, cedar tangles and scouring winds might
lose his head -- or take somebody else's.
Oral histories collected by the anthropologist T.B. McIlwraith more than
70 years ago recorded bitter wars over resources, the control of trade
routes and complex dynastic politics. The Nuxalk from Bella Coola
attacked Kitkatla, for example, the Cowichans ambushed the Heiltsuk and
war with the Kwakiutl over access to salmon rivers was a recurrent fact.
But today, even as the province pushes the value of fish farming as a
job engine for small, impoverished aboriginal communities where wild
stocks are in steep decline and promises new relationships, many of
these former enemies are fusing into a formidable coast-wide opposition.
They reject fish farms in waters that lie within their traditional
The crucible for this alliance is this outer coast community of 1,200
found on Campbell Island, about 180 kilometres north of Port Hardy off
the northern tip of Vancouver Island. Bella Bella, also known as
Waglisla to the descendants of the six tribal groups of the Heiltsuk, is
the centre of a territory that has been occupied by the same people for
an estimated 10,000 years.
Wild salmon are fundamental to the cultural, spiritual and economic
identities of these coastal societies and any perceived risk to the runs
on which they have relied since time immemorial is seen as a direct
threat to the survival not just of a village but of the whole aboriginal
"We are struggling to save a way of life," says Heiltsuk hereditary
chief Edwin Newman.
Not everyone agrees, of course. The Kitasoo at Klemtu a bit farther
north have hitched their wagon to the star of the fish farming industry.
But plagued by viral disease outbreaks which have devastated their
livestock in recent years, the Kitasoo find themselves increasingly
marginalized in their own community.
"It's hard to say no to the job opportunities," says Harvey Humchitt,
another Heiltsuk hereditary chief, "but the risks (to wild salmon) are
just so great that we have to do it."
"I shake when I think about our relatives from Klemtu, how they've been
drawn into it, dividing us," says fellow chief Gary Housty. "We've got
unemployment too but we're not going to pay the price of being fish
If the importance of wild salmon to most First Nations is a concern
which seems to elude provincial authorities, small town mayors and
business leaders, it is a deeply emotive issue for most coastal
communities between Port Hardy and Prince Rupert -- a region where
aboriginals comprise 85 per cent of the population yet remain seriously
under-represented in mainstream political institutions.
When a delegation from the once-moribund Native Brotherhood of B.C. --
membership had dwindled to a mere 38 people two years ago -- travelled
the coast last summer aboard a vessel aptly named Pacific Warwind, it
recruited thousands of new members from over 50 bands and First Nations
between Old Masset in Haida Gwaii to Cape Mudge near Campbell River.
At Kyuquot, which is on the west side of Vancouver Island and has no
road links to the outside, Leo Jack who operates the water taxi service
says he and much of his community are against any expansion by the fish
"The only ones who don't go against the fish farms are the few who work
for them. And that's not many," he says. "We had a meeting with the fish
farm not long ago. They asked if they could expand. I asked how many
fish farms they have. They said they have 24, all over the world.
"I said how greedy does this guy have to get?" Jack recalled. "How much
money does this guy need? This community needs to start saying no
because these guys will never have enough. They will always want more
and more and more until they have our whole inlet."
I heard this kind of rhetoric almost everywhere in the native Indian
community. And although both the provincial government and the salmon
farming industry seem unconcerned by what has been ignited -- in the
eyes of First Nations leaders, at least -- by the unilateral decision
supporting expansion of net cage aquaculture, the term "war" is now used
The fact that hereditary chiefs and elders have associated themselves
with talk like this is particularly significant because it marks the
political re-emergence of an ancient and long-suppressed government.
These leaders bring with them a powerful moral authority that no elected
politician or corporate CEO from mainstream society could hope to command.
And so, when militant language of a kind that hasn't been heard for more
than a century in the troubled relationship between aboriginal people
and provincial politicians is expressed by elders, neither industry nor
the B.C. government would be wise to take it lightly or seek to dismiss
it, as some do, as the work of environmental agitators.
That assertion -- blaming the heated conflict on outsiders -- is seen
among First Nations leaders as the crude colonial assumption that
aboriginal people can't be responsible for their own political activism,
that they must be the pliable dupes of smarter non-native agents.
But there's no doubt that Chris Cook, the articulate president of the
resurgent Native Brotherhood, is entirely his own man on fish farms or
any other issue.
"When I look at farm fish, I talk about biochemical warfare," Cook said
last December while addressing concerns about disease outbreaks,
parasite infestations, unsanitary disposal of the dead farmed salmon
called morts and the potential for escaped Atlantic salmon to invade the
habitat niches left by depressed wild Pacific stocks.
I listened to Cook state his passionate case at Alert Bay, a Kwakiutl
fishing village on Cormorant Island about 350 kilometres northwest of
Vancouver. He'd been invited to an extraordinary meeting of the
Mamaleleqala Qwe'Qwe;Sot'Enox, Namgis, Da'naxda'xw Awaetlala,
Tsawataineuk, Kwicksutaineuk Ah-kwa-mis, Gwawaenuk and Tlatlaskiwala
convened by the Kwakiutl Territorial Fisheries Commission.
Snow flurries and patches of fog had slowed traffic to a crawl between
Campbell River and Port McNeill and rivers like the Adam, Eve and
Tsitika where escaped Atlantic salmon have spawned were thundering with
a winter freshet, but the meeting hall at Alert Bay was full and rapt.
Delegates sat in silence as they heard about repeated disease outbreaks
involving millions of salmon in fish farms around the Broughton
Archipelago to the east and on the west coast of Vancouver Island. Cook
didn't seem inclined to give the industry much quarter.
"I believe it's war on farmed fish," Cook said. "They are talking about
150 sites going north and each one of those sites will be where our
salmon are going to be. We've been let down. Not just the Indians --
more of the white people -- we've all been let down in this province.
It's time native people came together with one voice."
Newman, invited from Bella Bella to speak at the December meeting, said
that although salmon farming companies had attempted a
divide-and-conquer strategy by co-opting some poor communities with a
promise of jobs, it was a doomed strategy.
"We will not allow any fish farms in our territory," he said. "We will
stop it any way we can. Even if it means going to war with our own
people. The fish farm industry has been in Port Hardy for many years but
you don't see a prosperous community, you see a dying community.
"We will not allow our territory to become a garbage dump for the fish
farm industry," said Newman. "We are prepared to pay the consequences if
we are to survive as a people. We have got a hell of a fight (ahead of
us). If we are going to stop them, we have got to do it together."
Greg Wadhams, a leader of the Namgis people who are centred on the
Nimpkish River and its once-vast runs of wild salmon, echoed those
"We are going to have to go to war with these guys," he said. "The only
thing the government understands is what went on at Ocean Falls. It's
about corporations and investors making money out of this resource and
the rest of us starving."
What has been going on at Ocean Falls has become a lightning rod for
this growing aboriginal rebellion. It's where the Heiltsuk village known
as Laig was removed -- if this occurred someplace like Bosnia we might
call it ethnic cleansing -- to clear the way for a pulp mill. Now the
forest industry has moved on, leaving behind only decaying buildings,
scabbed concrete and the dank stench of abandonment.
Yet despite the original inhabitants' long-standing claim on the site,
the province unilaterally approved the building of a massive hatchery
and smolt rearing facility for Omega Salmon Group, one of the
multinational salmon farming companies that was a contributor to
Sustainable Resources Minister Stan Hagen's election campaign. It's a
subsidiary of Pan Fish of Norway, the world's second largest aquaculture
Approving a facility that will rear 10 million smolts a year for fish
farms right in the middle of a hereditary chief's territory that's
subject to a specific land claim sent a message that symbolically
insulted elders in a culture where insults were justification for
Not surprisingly, Ocean Falls has since been the site of robust protests
by the Heiltsuk from Bella Bella and the Nuxalk from Bella Coola.
When I went out to see what was happening at one such protest in
mid-January, I climbed out of my float plane early, then watched it take
off and dwindle into the distance. It was bitterly cold in the Arctic
outflow from the Interior glaciers and the dock was deserted except for
the big patrol vessel Inkster with its tinted glass windows hiding the
RCMP observers. The huge white hull dwarfed the few trollers and
I went for a stroll through what's left of the townsite but hadn't gone
far before one of the non-native inhabitants, his face contorted with
rage, snarled at me: "You're a visitor to our community who is not
welcome." He also swore at me several times to make sure I got the message.
Bill Robson took pity on me after this performance and invited me aboard
his cream-coloured fish boat, Dean Kingfisher, to warm up over a
breakfast of hardboiled eggs, bacon, biscuits and scalding coffee.
Jammed in beside me was the Nuxalk hereditary chief Snux'y al twa --
Deric Snow to the rest of us. He and Robson had come around from Bella
Coola the day before and were awaiting the official delegation, in-bound
from Bella Bella, still hours away by boat.
"The government is going to have a tough time with this one," Snow told
me. "What they are trying to do is divide the people and confuse us.
It's not going to work. We are going to stand together. We are going to
stop these fish farms. That's one thing we know, we don't want these
Later, I watched the Heiltsuk hereditary chiefs come in on rafted fish
boats. They were greeted by a welcome song from the Nuxalk chiefs in
their regalia of headdresses, crimson and navy button blankets and
ceremonial aprons decorated with coppers and shells. There was even a
Lummi chief who arrived in a float plane.
These dignitaries then led a walk of close to 200 -- probably twice the
remaining population of Ocean Falls -- from the dock to the disputed
site. At the gate, they were stopped by RCMP officers in body armour.
Nobody wearing a mask could proceed.
As it was, there was one mask -- not some bandit's bandanna, but a
chief's 19-year-old daughter wearing the intricately carved
Man-from-the-Sea mask that's worn for traditional winter dances.
The RCMP relented slightly. She could pass, but only if a chief vouched
"We told the RCMP the day before that this was going to be a peaceful
demonstration," Humchitt said later. "It was disrespectful of them. They
had no reason to be there in full force, in battle fatigues -- man,
that's a silly response. I think it was disgraceful."
Housty, the Heiltsuk chief Naci whose territory the Ocean Falls hatchery
occupies, pointed out that the elders were doing more to protect wild
salmon than was the federal government whose fiduciary responsibility
"Why is our Canadian government so weak?" he asked.
Later, standing on the stern of Humchitt's boat the Clea Rose, I hitched
a ride back to Bella Bella. My stormhood was up against the wind and I
ate hot stew from a Styrofoam cup and warmed my fingers around mugs of
thick, black, aromatic coffee.
Night fell, a line snapped and the tarp we'd rigged for shelter blew
away. But I stayed out in the weather listening to the hiss of rain on
the sea's face, to basketball stories, to a chief suddenly pointing
through the spindrift to a clearcut, pale against the hillside, and
saying "That is a burial site. My father's father is buried there. These
are the things that hurt us."
It was an eerie echo of the concerns I had heard in the Broughton
Archipelago and at Alert Bay about the industrial impact on pink salmon
runs as a result of infestations at fish farms by sea lice which then
attacked and killed migrating wild smolts.
Those concerns by marine researcher Alexandra Morton -- initially
ridiculed and ignored by federal, provincial and industry
representatives -- were confirmed last weekend by an international
scientific conference which urged B.C. to act swiftly to mitigate the
problem. And on Tuesday, Hagen finally announced a tough new control
regime which Morton dismissed as "too little, too late."
The B.C. government promised a new relationship with First Nations in
its Throne Speech, but as far as the Heiltsuk are concerned Victoria is
still treating them like colonial peons. They are now suing the province
and Omega Salmon Group Ltd. on grounds the project at Ocean Falls was
begun without proper consultation required by law.
Before I left Bella Bella that cold day back in January, the Ocean Falls
demonstration still fresh in my memory, Housty had button-holed me one
more time. He wanted the last word.
"This experience we're going through has made us stronger," he said.
"We're not stopping. We are going to become more aggressive. It's not
about us any more, it's about out grandchildren and their grandchildren.
My last word is this: Omega is not going to happen. Their dream is our
- - -
THURSDAY, Feb. 20: Fish farming, sea lice, and the collapse of Broughton
Archipelago pink salmon.
SATURDAY, Feb. 22: The sea trout lessons from Ireland are troubling and
should be of interest to B.C.
SATURDAY, March 1: Native Indians honour wild salmon but an industrial
fishery worries many bands.
SATURDAY, March 8: Our neighbours in Alaska don't like the B.C.
government's decision to expand fish farms.
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