"We honour our salmon -- our sth'oqwi," Stó:lō elder Titelem Spath says as the Friday afternoon rains increase. She pronounces it STAW-kee, and for her it is sacred. "We acknowledge the salmon as our relatives. It's our belief that if we don't do this sacred work, then our relatives won't be coming back."
Wearing a hand-woven cedar bark hat, the Stó:lō cultural committee member smiles as volunteers fold up chairs and tidy dishes at the end of the nation's annual salmon ceremony near Chilliwack, where hundreds of guests ate salmon together and witnessed elders clean the fish's path with cedar boughs before returning its bones to the river -- inviting the Salmon People back.
"Nowadays, we're quite concerned about the salmon," she says, becoming quiet. "The low returns are very, very disturbing. There are new threats to their survival... There's a lot of stress on our salmon."
Those dismal sockeye salmon forecasts were a topic of conversation across the ceremony grounds as guests and locals shared crab legs, barbequed salmon steaks and coleslaw. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) has predicted a dire sockeye run of between 1.2 and 3.8 million this summer -- a huge drop from five million in 2011, and potentially even worse than the 1.5 million in 2009 that spurred the Cohen Commission. It's a forecast that has commercial fishers anxious.
Standing next to a barrel fire just beyond the food serving tents, Sumas First Nation fisher Sam Kelly pulls a wire rack of salmon steaks away from the burning logs. He cuts the fish and tenderly serves them onto a serving platter.
"It's just a way of life," he says. "And it tastes good, too!
"It's part of our culture, part of our heritage. And I love the taste of it. I like fishing for the elders on the reserve. It makes me feel good... The projections are looking terrible. If not this year, I'm hoping next year's gonna be good."
'May not be enough': DFO
Though the DFO admits its pre-season data could be overly conservative, the median forecast of 2.1 million sockeye has the department concerned.
"The main reason for the forecast is because (salmon) had a considerable mortality during the brood year due to warm water conditions, which often happens in the Fraser River," Les Jantz, DFO's acting area director for B.C.'s Interior, told The Tyee. "We had a number of systems experience the lowest-expected spawners for decades in those systems.
"We do know there will be sufficient fish for food, social and ceremonial uses, but it may not be enough to meet all needs."
With the Cohen inquiry wrapping up Sept. 30, the grim forecasts again this year have many worried, and not only First Nations.
With a million fish reserved for spawning beds, and another million allocated to Aboriginal communities -- what is termed "food, social and ceremonial" (FSC) uses -- tensions are rising as commercial boats will likely be tied up at dock, and sport fishers increasingly restricted.
Treatment of commercial fishers 'appalling': Cummins
What looks set to be another year of Aboriginal-only fishing -- guaranteed by several Supreme Court cases upholding First Nations fishing rights -- once again has some non-Aboriginal sectors complaining about the department's management of the fishery.
In fact, on June 4 B.C.'s Supreme Court ordered a number of commercial fishermen -- among them John Cummins, leader of the BC Conservative Party -- to pay $300 for illegally setting gill-nets in a 2002 protest against First Nations fisheries.
Although some have dismissed Cummins' actions as fringe, his party has risen dramatically in opinion polls. Last month, the provincial Conservatives stood at nearly 20 per cent support across B.C. In March, MLA John van Dongen crossed the legislature floor, granting Cummins' party its first seat.
"The way they have treated the rights of commercial fishermen -- and that includes Aboriginal commercial fishermen as well -- is appalling," Cummins told The Tyee, explaining that he hopes to appeal his fine again. "We have been treated as if we have no rights.
"The (DFO) is more interested, it seems, in operating as an extension of the Department of Indian Affairs, than it is operating as a manager of the fisheries... They allow fishing opportunities for the natives when they know full-well, when the fish is being sold illegally. They keep the commercial fleet... tied up to dock. That's scandalous in a free and democratic society."
Although fisheries are a federal matter, if the provincial Conservatives were to gain power, Cummins promises a crackdown on Aboriginal fisheries: "We're committed to enforcing federal law if the federal government isn't prepared to do so," he says.
But though the rise of the BC Conservatives has many indigenous leaders anxious, one First Nations fisheries expert says there is little to fear.
"It's a lot of bark and no bite," said Ernie Crey, senior policy advisor at Stó:lō Tribal Council. "The law has been decided.
"It should be hard for any thinking British Columbian to believe for a moment that Aboriginal people are responsible for taking the Fraser River sockeye salmon from the level of 100 million sockeye down to ... 1.5 to two million fish returning to the Fraser River. That's just absurd, fantasy thinking."
Is he worried about the Conservatives' growing popularity?
"You know, we've had our rights as human beings suspended, not just our right to fish," he reflects. "Our folks have lived through all of that, so the prospect for some right-wing ideologue in Victoria doesn't scare me a lot.
"It worries some aboriginal leaders in the province, but it doesn't worry me. Politicians come and go -- they've got a short shelf life."
Issues of representation
Another source of tension, say First Nations groups, is the refusal of the federal Tories to include them on a new fisheries and hunting advisory panel proposed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper. The issue of under-representation on various decision-making bodies related to fisheries, such as the Fraser Panel, has compounded fears around declining salmon stocks.
"First Nations have constitutional rights to hunt and fish, and are routinely engaged in consultations on a wide array of subjects including hunting, fishing, and conservation," Environment Minister Peter Kent told The Tyee by email. "The hunting and fishing advisory panel was struck to create a dialogue with this important segment of the population (licensed hunters and anglers) who have previously been under-consulted."
But for Crey, the larger issue is racial inequality faced by First Nations communities.
"Many of those non-Aboriginals (criticizing Aboriginal fisheries) have a history of enmity towards Aboriginal fisheries," he says. "They need to become familiar with the term 'systemic racism' or 'institutional racism.'
"Imagine: You get up tomorrow morning and discover that all the people in charge of important aspects of your life are people of a different ethnic and cultural group. Moreover, they may even be people who were openly and unapologetically hostile to you, your rights and your community."
Over at the Stó:lō salmon cooking area, Kelly scrapes at some particularly sticky chinook skin on the blackened rack. Behind him, the line-up of eaters dwindles as a group of young drummers sing by their minivan and people quietly eat the salmon honoured by the day's ritual.
A commercial fisher himself, Kelly also harvests salmon for food, social and ceremonial uses in his community. For him, the controversy over his Native fishing rights is secondary to the importance of salmon itself.
"There's always somebody grumbling about it," he says, tasting a juicy morsel left behind. "No matter what happens, somebody's always unhappy.
"As long as I can get out there and fill my freezers and smokehouses and help out the elders, I'm good to go. I'm happy."
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