Parliament Building, Victoria, 8 May 2010. Photo Salmon Are Sacred.
As my friend Andrew Teasdale and I got off the Vancouver ferry on Friday around 4:30 PM, we didn't know what to expect.
Like many others, we had received the call from Alexandra Morton to join the Get Out Migration to save BC's wild salmon. We had decided to show up for the last 27km leg of the trek, from Sidney to Victoria. I was hoping that the number of walkers would be high. But having participated in many other environmental actions, I had learned to temper my optimism in order to avoid heartbreak.
But then again, this one stood out of the ordinary. Alex had asked us literally to get off our butts and walk with her on a 500-kilometer journey as a message to the politicians in Victoria. I liked the simplicity of that action, and I was sure hoping that many others would like it too.
As we walked off the ferry, a car stopped to offer us a ride to Sidney and we jumped in. Oh yeah, the young man told us after knowing the purpose of our visit, count me in for Saturday in Victoria, I was definitely planning to be there. Cool, we thought, he already knows. As we drove on, a portion of the road was in repair and had one of those digital signs that usually say something like Slow Down Next 500 Meters. That one, however, said: “Save Our Wild Salmon”. We were blown away. Something was clearly happening on this side of the water.
We arrived in Sidney on time to greet the flotilla which had paddled down the Fraser River and then across the Georgia Strait, and was now connecting with Alex's group of walkers. I had read reports from earlier days of the migration which said that on average a core group of 20 people or so had been walking along with Alex since the beginning. A respectable number, no doubt, given the magnitude of the physical effort involved, but not an overwhelming one either. Not the kind that you need to force politicians into action. But on the beach where the flotilla's largest canoe had just landed, there was now twice that initial number – about 40 people.
The general mood was relaxed and cheerful, with walkers and paddlers greeting each other, cracking jokes and taking group pictures, some playing music, some just stretching out and enjoying the sunny sky. “Our first entirely dry day!” one of the walkers confided to me with a big happy smile. At the same time, there was some perceptible nervousness about the next day. What if people didn't show up in Victoria, what if we were it? Well of course, they knew that many more would be at the Parliament Building the next day, but you know the feeling. They had gone through that incredible journey for the past two weeks, and now, as the canoe was being hauled out of the water, they were thinking that it all better have been for something.
The group gathered around Alex and slowly proceeded with the canoe, which was now on wheels, towards Sidney's Mary Winspear Theatre for a public presentation. Along the way, I hooked up with a woman who had been walking from Quadra Island, and she broke me the wonderful news that the Klinaklini private power mega-project, which had menaced Knight Inlet for so many years, was dead in the water. Incredible. As if joining this migration had not been sufficient to make my day.
At the Theatre, the atmosphere was electric. The hall, which was packed solid with over 400 people, greeted Alex's group with thundering applause. As kids were cutting out, decorating, and stapling together salmon paper figures in preparation for the next day's final walk, speakers energized the audience. I am not exceptional, Alex Morton told the room. I have just put one foot in front of the other and not given up. There is nothing to negotiate, she continued. We are here to get our fish back and that's that. We have walked away from large sums of money, First Nations chief Bob Chamberlin said, and by doing so we are telling the fish farm industry that we and our resources are not for sale, because we are one with our territory.
The next morning, a large crowd gathered in downtown Sidney and filled the Shaw centre for a brief kick-off breakfast. At 8, backpacks and tents were loaded on the support trucks, safety instructions were given out, a horse carriage full of small kids took the lead, and off we went. About half an hour out of Sidney, my friend Andrew did a quick head count and found that there were about 200 walkers, or five times the number I had seen on the beach the night before. Encouraging. The numbers were solid, the sun was out, the cause was clear. People were visibly happy to be here.
As we were walking, I had a chat with a mother and her extraordinary 12-year old daughter who had walked all the way from Tofino to join the migration. The kid was slightly limping and supporting herself on her mom as she walked, visibly impacted by the grueling days on the road. She has absolutely refused to use the support vehicle, her mother explained, and so she has walked every single kilometer all the way to here. As I and other walkers around us were wowed by the exploit and warmly congratulating the young girl (who for her part remained silently focused on the task at hand), her mom added: Oh, and today is her birthday. Holy cow, I commented, talk about a birthday party. Thousands of people gathered on a legislature lawn to wish you a happy birthday. Well, you earned it.
At around 10:00 AM we definitely felt that there were more of us than when we set off, so Andrew did another count. Yep, a solid 250 now. From that point on, the numbers just kept swelling. Cars would catch up with us on the highway and drop off some walkers, people would arrive on their bikes or literally out of nowhere and blend into the march. The ferry people from Vancouver were starting to arrive en masse. I later learned from friends who were joining us in Victoria, that bus drivers were actually making calls on their PA systems when they were reaching us, saying “if there are any salmon people on board, this is your stop” and would drop off people on the highway, in complete violation I assume of the most basic safety regulations. As for the cars honking and motorists waving their support as they drove by, it was overwhelming. Do we have a single person in this province still in favor of fish farms, I wondered as I walked, apart from corporate vested interests and our politicians in Victoria?
We helped Alex's dog (who'd also been on the road for two straight weeks) hop into the canoe-on-wheels where he gratefully settled for a lazy nap, and then at one point we got off the highway into Saanich to join a group of supporters who had gathered at NDP MLA Lana Popham's constituency office. A crowd of hundreds were waiting for us there. We mingled, had some food and refreshments, and hit the road again, now walking in a city which was a nice change from the motorway. But whatever had happened to our numbers? There were many, many more of us. I quickly did another count: 500 walkers!
Finally, we arrived at Centennial Square in Victoria where I connected with my friends who had arrived on the bus and I retrieved my seven-year old daughter. She tucked on the “Salmon Are Sacred” t-shirt which I had secured for her the night before, and off we went to Parliament Building. Wow! I had already seen large protests and demonstrations in my home country of France, but never that large a number in obedient British Columbia. Now that's what I call a crowd. About three quarters of the Parliament's front lawn was packed solid with people, with more people roaming on the remaining unoccupied quarter, and many more columns of people still swarming towards it. We were at the tail of the walk, and so the speeches had already started on the stairs of Parliament when we arrived. Whatever, I thought, I'm tired. I dropped my backpack on an unoccupied patch of lawn outside of megaphone range and settled in the grass with my friends and daughter. 3,000 to 5,000 people was our collegial assessment of the attendance.
As we were resting, a young man approached us asking if we would write a letter to Fisheries Minister Gail Shea. You mean – now? Yes, and we'll take care of sending it for you. I was more in the mood for a nap than for letter writing, so I jokingly handed over the paper to my daughter. Here, you write it dear, I laughed. Okay, she said very seriously and grabbed the pen. Uh oh. But she wrote a marvelous letter explaining how she really wished that she could save the salmon and simply asking the Minister to close the fish farms, without forgetting to write down her age. When she handed the sheet of paper back to me, I was speechless and simply added: “Dear Ms. Shea. If a seven-year old can get it, then no doubt so can you. Close the fish farms” and I signed.
What Alex Morton has realized here, in the face of the corporate assault, is to enable us. Enable us to formulate a coordinated response. A response which is guided by simple principles, yet is irresistible once set in motion. A small trickle becomes a stream, the stream turns into a creek, creeks join together, and suddenly you have a mighty river gushing against the walls of Parliament Building. That is what I have witnessed first hand during those two extraordinary days, as my buddy Andrew's and my own meaningless little trickle grew from 2 people to 40, then 200, then 500, then 3 to 5,000 people celebrating the wild salmon on the front lawn of Parliament Building.
As Alex herself told the walkers during our short stop in Saanich: “Well, it appears that we are living in a democracy after all.”