|Photos Don Staniford|
The canoe landing protocol which First Nations travelers observe when they reach another nation's shores is a very formal one. I was fortunate to witness it on several occasions during the Paddle for Wild Salmon, a one-week journey down the Fraser River from Hope to Vancouver which a group of 100 paddlers recently undertook to demand that fish farms release their diseased fish data. It's a beautiful and powerful protocol, which takes place as follows.
The hereditary chief and members of the welcoming nation gather on the beach singing and drumming. The approaching travelers raise their paddles in vertical position, letting the canoes glide gently towards the shore as a sign of non-aggression. The canoes are brought to a full stop a few feet away from the shoreline and rafted together to face the welcoming party. One of the indigenous members of the flotilla addresses the chief. He states his name and nation of origin, explains that he and his fellow paddlers are traveling on a journey to protect the wild salmon and asks permission for his party to come ashore and get some rest before continuing on. The chief states his own name and role and responds that his nation shares the concern of the travelers over the future of the wild salmon. He welcomes them to come ashore and invites them to rest and break bread. Both speakers use their loud voices to ensure that all can hear, they choose words and expressions carrying particular meaning, and emphasize their speeches with expressive gestures such as grabbing a handful of water or sweeping the horizon with an extended arm.
I raise my hands to who you are, one of the chiefs said to the paddlers on one such occasion. I call you now my brothers and sisters that travel on this water with an open heart and mind of hope. I see the salmon heads that decorate the front of your canoes as an expression of the message that you are carrying to the bigger people [swooping gesture towards Vancouver], which tend to take care of our water in the wrong way.
I joined the paddle on its fifth day. As we disembarked in Musqueam at the end of the day, I was drawn in by the incredible intensity of this beautiful protocol. In the oral tradition of the First Nations, such ceremonies carry great cultural significance and also constitute a basis of agreement between two groups. The people who are gathered hear the specific terms of the exchange and can bear witness to what was said and agreed upon: in the absence of paper, the witnesses constitute the agreement.
The Musqueam people took us to their large communal room for the evening where they had prepared a sumptuous feast in our honor. After dinner, chiefs and representatives from various nations who had responded to Alexandra Morton's call for action sang and talked about the wild salmon. A young man sang a beautiful healing song from his nation, which he said he felt was fitting since we were on a journey to heal the wild salmon for our children and grandchildren. He then added: what a wonderful time to be alive, what a great responsibility, what a task we have in front of us, what a honor! Chief Marilyn Baptiste from the Xeni Gwet'in nation said a few words about the struggle that her people is waging to save Fish Lake from annihilation by a mining company. She explained that her nation may have no choice but take direct radical action to protect their lake.
Of all the leaders gathered in Musqueam that night, the only one who did not talk publicly was Alexandra Morton. Instead, she stood in the circle which had formed around the speakers and silently listened to everything which was being said. By traveling to the First Nations over the past weeks and months to meet them face-to-face, by spending so much time in gatherings and circles like this one, by listening in silence to the peoples and their struggles and their songs again and again, by breathing in their culture on a daily basis, Alex has succeeded where historically most environmentalists have failed in this Province – to establish durable, viable, long-term alliances with the First Nations, federating indigenous and ‘settlers’ alike under the common banner of the wild salmon. She has also, by mixing nations and their issues together in rooms such as this one, provided the First Nations with opportunities to build and strengthen alliances of their own.
The contrast between Alex’s approach and the shallow ‘take it or leave it’ deals that large corporations impose on their own terms to local bands over resource-extraction projects, couldn't be more striking. How many CEOs and politicians have spent one night – let alone entire weeks – sleeping on the floor of a band’s common room and taken the time to actually listen to what they had to say? It was particularly comforting to environmentalists such as myself to acknowledge the presence of representatives of the Homalco nation, who had joined the Paddle in Musqueam after an epic canoe journey across the Salish Sea with travelers from other nations. One will indeed recall that the Homalco were at the center of Plutonic Power's PR campaign over its Bute Inlet private power mega-project. With the help of controversial Klahoose elected chief Ken Brown, Plutonic had secured a deal which it had advertised in triumphant media releases stating that the company was “working” with the First Nations. The Bute project has since then collapsed, and so have the alleged benefits that Brown had hastily promised to his people. For their part, the alliances that Alex has initiated with nations such as the Homalco are made to stand the test of time.
The next morning we paddled from Musqueam to Jericho Beach. The atmosphere on the water was relaxed and joyful. People were singing and cracking jokes from one canoe to another. We were at that stage in every journey when people have become very familiar and comfortable with one another, when latecomers have been properly integrated to the mix by those of the first hour. The tide was coming out, the current and the wind were pushing us, and the sun joined in for the better part of the paddle contrary to Environment Canada’s dire predictions. After a quick stop at Spanish Banks to grab a snack we were back on the water, but then the radio called in to tell us that one of the hereditary chiefs meant to greet us at Jericho was running late, and so we were kindly asked to raft together and kill some time on the water. We gracefully obliged, remarking among ourselves that no matter who you are or what you do in life, you always seem to be waiting for some chief.
That downtime on the water turned out to be one of the high moments of the journey, according to people who had been on it since the first day. As we are floating in one big raft in the middle of the Bay, one of the First Nations leaders stands up and gets us into some singing. We sing well on that morning, in unison with a loud and clear voice. In that very moment, we are indeed one voice, one salmon nation united in a common purpose. We all bear witness that the alliance between the peoples of this land for the healing of the salmon has been enacted. As witnesses, we constitute the alliance. After the singing, Alex is invited to say a few words. She looks at us with her beautiful smile and simply says: Well, I think we'll get to keep our wild salmon after all.
The following day is Monday, and it is a work day for us paddlers as much as it is for most Vancouverites. This is the day when we deliver our message to the Cohen Commission that the fish farms must release their fish disease data – all their data since their operations started, not a limited dataset from some handpicked farms as the industry just did to counter our paddle in the media. It's a simple demand, really: release all your data. If you can’t, what are you hiding? To that effect, we paddle one last time from Jericho to Vanier Park. The strong wind and heavy rain are whipping our faces, and what was supposed to be a leisurely paddle turns out to be one of the hardest legs of the journey. For those long minutes we feel like the wild salmon, struggling hard against the elements to reach the destination where we know we must be. My eight-year old daughter who joined us for this last leg is shivering with cold but soldiering on, bravely casting her small paddle into the water with the rest of us. My heart is throbbing with pride.
After disembarking at Vanier Park, we march to the Cohen Commission in downtown Vancouver where Alex delivers our message to Justice Cohen in person, and we get a wild salmon rally going at the Art Gallery. As I distribute salmon stickers and information fliers to passers-by – most of them extremely sympathetic to our cause –, I look up at the glass tower where Mr. Cohen is holding his hearings. He is listening to us behind one of those windows, I think. Well, he better be. Because a lot of good people have worked their asses off on their own time and money to deliver him that message.
At the after-rally party, Alex Morton said the following: I'm not sure yet if we made a difference or not. Change is not incremental. Marilyn Baptiste will die for her land and that's the level where we need to be. I think that now, I’m just going to sleep. I'm a shell right now. When you're in the middle of this, you run on the energy.
I hear your words of caution about whether or not we have made a difference, Alex. But I beg to differ. That difference has been made already, thanks to the deep roots of unity that you have planted along with the other leaders who answered your call. This alliance of the wild salmon, of which I caught a glimpse during my few days on the paddle, is not going to vanish away. Not this time. Someone had to initiate that alliance, and you did. Good on you. Thank you from the bottom of our hearts. You may sleep now.