British Columbia

First Nation celebrates sockeye harvest with free fish distribution

The Westbank First Nation's annual "Salmon Day" aims to restore traditional food systems in pandemic times and help members prepare for the winter.

Westbank First Nation members fillet and take home 500 fish from annual 'Salmon Day'

Leann Miller, a Westbank First Nation member, demonstrated how to fillet a salmon at the annual Salmon Day giveaway of fresh sockeye. (Dominika Lirette/CBC)

Westbank First Nation members lined up this week to take part in a delicious tradition.

Salmon Day, which actually takes place over two days, is the annual distribution of free sockeye salmon. 

At the distribution site, four stations were set up so members could gut or fillet their fish before taking them home.

Leann Miller, a seventh-generation member of the Westbank First Nation, wielded her fillet knife to demonstrate how to turn a whole sockeye into freezer-ready slabs.

"You can cut the tail. And then if you come up by the gill and you open up the gill flap you can feel a little hard piece. You can just follow that around," Miller told a CBC reporter. 

"And once you get to there, then you flip it over and you do the same thing on the other side."

The Westbank First Nation received about 500 whole fish for distribution this season. It represents a share of the harvest that is divided among the seven member communities in the Okanagan Nation Alliance. 

Audrey Wilson, the membership service manager for the WFN, said the sockeye, harvested from Osoyoos Lake, are part of a full stewardship program led by the ONA that includes its own hatchery.

"It's a great program that they have for giving back to the communities. It helps our elders, our members, the youth, and it's our culture," Wilson said.

Aside from sharing the bounty, the broader aim is to restore traditional food systems and food sovereignty.

'It's like back in the day'

"It's like back in the day. We used to can, dry, prepare for the winter," Wilson said. "Everybody in the community loves their salmon."

Wilson likes her salmon barbecued or oven baked with lots of onions, lemon and spices. 

While the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted many activities, Wilson said it makes this tradition even more meaningful than in a typical year. 

Many community members have said they don't want to shop at grocery stores, or don't have time to do so.

"This is a way for them to plan ahead and have something for the wintertime," Wilson said. 

With files from Dominika Lirette and CBC Daybreak South