Squamish Nation's yearly salmon distribution takes new form

Every year, the Squamish Nation distributes fresh sockeye for free to ensure the community has traditional food. But this year, for the first time in, the Nation is distributing canned salmon bearing the Squamish Nation's crest—the Nation's solution to keeping tradition alive when both fishermen and fish are scarce.

Nation turns to canned salmon to preserve tradition in face of shortages of both fishermen and fish

Squamish Nation’s first-ever commercially canned salmon is distributed to the community in front of St. Paul’s Church on the Mission reserve. (Emma Loy)

A stream of people wind their way through the gravel parking lot in front of St. Paul's church on the Mission reserve in North Vancouver. Cardboard boxes are unloaded from the deck of a Squamish Nation truck. Laughter mingles with birdsong as band members wait patiently to get two cases of sockeye salmon — a prized food of the Squamish people.

Every year, the Squamish Nation distributes fresh sockeye for free to ensure the community has traditional food.

But this year is different. For the first time in Squamish history, the Nation is distributing canned salmon bearing the Squamish Nation's crest — the Nation's solution to keeping tradition alive when both fishermen and fish are scarce.

Disrupted distribution

Fresh salmon is usually given out in August, but in 2015, sockeye returns were poor, so the nation distributed frozen surplus salmon and put some sockeye into cold storage.

In 2016, sockeye returns were the worst on record — and there was no distribution. A small parental generation, warm water in the Pacific Ocean and higher-than-normal temperatures in the Fraser River were blamed, and all sockeye fisheries were suspended in August.

"We had our boats ready to go," said Squamish Nation Coun. Chris Lewis. "We were out there, then the Department of Fisheries closed the [waters]."

Moreover, the salmon sitting in cold storage was getting freezer burn, so the Nation decided to try something new — they canned it.

"Most people, when they get fresh sockeye, can it right away so it lasts longer," said Coun. Lewis. "For the Nation to take that extra step, a lot of people are excited."

Squamish Nation volunteers unload cases of canned salmon that will be picked up by community members living both on- and off-reserve. (Emma Loy)

In August 2016, the fish went to St. Jean's Cannery, a First Nations facility in Nanaimo, B.C. The cans were ready last fall, but weather prevented distribution until this spring.

"We got a lot of calls saying, 'Where's the fish, is it actually here?'" said Coun. Lewis. "People are really excited."

Return of a precious resource

"I grew up having a good stock of fresh sockeye salmon every year through our food fish distribution," recalled Adina Williams, a 21-year-old Squamish member whose family received canned salmon.

"Not having that for the last few years was an emptiness in our family. It's really nice to have sockeye back in the family."

To understand why, it's important to understand how significant salmon is to Squamish culture.

"Salmon has been a big part of my life," said Latash Maurice Nahanee, an elder who grew up fishing on the Squamish River.

"The majority went out to our aunts and uncles. My parents taught me a lot about their respect for this precious resource."

Nahanee speaks at schools and cultural events about the importance of salmon. He often shares a legend of ancient times before the salmon came.

Latash Maurice Nahanee stands by his smokehouse on the Mission reserve. (Emma Loy)

"There were years that people suffered and didn't have a steady supply of food. The old people would hear their children crying at night from hunger."

According to the legend, they sought out the mythical salmon people, who agreed to visit each year to provide food.

Many Squamish families still return the bones of their first salmon to the river, keeping their promise to respect and take care of the treasured, life-giving resource.

Catching community's fish a challenge without Squamish fishermen

For generations, Squamish people fished along local rivers and out into the Pacific Ocean. But as the city grew around reserve land, people chose other jobs over traditional hunting, fishing and gathering.

The last time a Squamish boat caught fish for the distribution was more than 10 years ago.

Now, the Nation contracts A-Tlegay Fisheries Society, a group of First Nations commercial fishermen, to catch the Nation's yearly salmon quota. However, this arrangement does not guarantee fish for the Squamish Nation.

Last year's low returns meant First Nations commercial sockeye fishing opened for only 18 hours, according to Cheryl Martin, co-ordinator of the Squamish Nation's distribution. The Squamish Nation didn't receive any fish because A-Tlegay catches for the group's own communities first.

A-Tlegay fishermen encourage the Squamish Nation to send out their own fishermen, according to Martin. "But there are no fishing boats. Nobody's trained here or has those skills anymore."

Emerging fishermen

Despite that, interest is growing among younger generations to revive old practices.

Cory Lewis was five when he learned to fish on his family's traditional fishing grounds in the Squamish Valley, about an hour's drive from Vancouver.

Cory Lewis explains how to make traditional fishing nets at the Cheekye River near Squamish, B.C. (Emma Loy)

"My uncle Dennis passed down the family legacy," he said, "not just to fish for yourself, but to fish for families and elders."

Cory Lewis is now in his 30s and sees it as his duty to continue the tradition.

"In Squamish, we're blessed with all these fish. Down in Vancouver it's hard for people," he said. "A lot of elders don't eat fish because they don't have access to it."

Lewis is an ironworker, but he takes his summers off to catch fish for others. If the opportunity to be trained as a commercial fisherman was offered by the Nation, Lewis said he would go in a heartbeat.

"I love fishing. Being out on those boats catching that many fish, that would be my glory."

Cory Lewis learned to fish here on the Cheekye River as a young child. In the summer, this place is teeming with salmon. (Emma Loy)

While Cory Lewis dreams of bringing in a big haul for the whole community, the Nation is busy working to keep fishing traditions alive.

"We do live a dualistic kind of life where we have one foot in our traditional ways and one foot in the modern world," said Coun. Chris Lewis.

Meanwhile, he says shifting to canned distribution was well-received — eating the same food as their ancestors is important to the community regardless of how it shows up.

"I think we're definitely going to do it again in the future."

The series "tem:éxw — Stories of Land" is produced in partnership with the reporting in Indigenous community course at UBC's graduate school of journalism, at