On Wild Salmon, Hockey Dreams and Life in the Saanich Homeland

Blaine Wilson: "Our name is what brings us alive, what ties us to our land."

Blaine Wilson
Tsartlip First Nation
Fisher/Hunter
Born in: 1969, Nanaimo, British Columbia
Interviewed in: Tsartlip First Nation, British Columbia
*

I met Blaine through his sister, Tracy, an academic coordinator at the University of Victoria’s Indigenous Student Support Centre. Her face lit up as she described her brother as “a bear” who lived off the land and said he was the only person of her generation she knows who truly does. When I arrived at his home on Tsartlip First Nation, Blaine was washing his white pickup truck in front of his one-story home. Tsartlip is located on the Saanich Peninsula, in Saanich, or WSÁNEĆ, territory. Its 824.8 acres of reserve land lie about twenty-three kilometers north of Victoria on Vancouver Island. And its one thousand members make up one of fifty First Nations on the island.

Blaine offered me a seat in a camping chair under a small overhang in front of his house. A few toy cars and an old car seat were evidence of Blaine’s fatherhood; a pair of antlers nailed to the house’s outside wall, along with fishing gaffs leaned against it, were evidence of his livelihoods. A sign reading “Douglas Treaty Supersedes Modern Treaties” was nailed to the side of an old fish smokehouse that sat across the driveway, and beside the house there was also a new, larger smokehouse. Another sign, which read “Our Time Is Now,” hung from a fence.

Saanich has been home to its Indigenous residents for thousands of years; its colonial history began in the 1840s with the arrival of the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC). The British had granted the company a ten-year lease to govern the island. In 1849, when the British government granted Vancouver Island status as an official colony, Sir James Douglas, the HBC’s chief factor, needed to find a way to secure land for the immigration and European settlement that this status would encourage. With an exchange of cash, blankets, and clothing, Douglas negotiated fourteen treaties over the next four years. No band received more than about $9,000 in today’s money. There is much evidence to support the Saanich people’s claim that their ancestors understood this as a peace treaty, an agreement to coexist with the British, not a purchase agreement. As viewed by the British, however, the treaties essentially removed Aboriginal title from the nations that signed them but promised continued and perpetual rights to fish.

While we sat under the big, gray West Coast sky, Blaine explained that his passion for hockey had given him his smile—a big gap in the place of his two front teeth. His face lit up as he described his love for hunting and fishing, his sons, and their traditional way of life. Blaine spoke about living by the seasons, how each one physically prepares him for the next. Blaine lives the same way his father and grandfather did, and he is teaching his sons to support themselves and contribute to the community the same way. He also described how the distraction of digital technology is threatening the intergenerational transfer of knowledge and how environmental changes are endangering his family’s livelihood.

–Sara Sinclair

*

I’ve been here at Tsartlip since 1977, when I was eight years old. I got two sisters, a brother, and a lot of cousins who are just like brothers and sisters. Big, big family, lot of aunties, lot of uncles living in Kam­loops and Musqueam.[1] We pretty well know the whole area from family, from going there to visit them. We traveled a lot, our whole family in a van, a 1966 Chevy. Oh yeah, it was nice. If it broke down, we fixed it. Once we’d get some place, we’d wake up, and we’d know where we were because we’ve been there. We’ve been going there all our life. We’d be all over to see our aunties and our cousins.

My Indian name is Sluxsthet. It was my great-grandfather’s name. It was my father’s Indian name, and is my first son’s Indian name. Each family in the area has an ancestral name. It helps us. We see each other, we call each other by that name. It’s like our ancestors are with us. It’s how we represent our ancestors—to be a family person, to be caring for your community, to be here for the people. A lot of people recognize our ancestral name and when people call our name, we answer. Our name is what brings us alive, what ties us to our land because it ties us to our history here. And that’s still the same today. Our friends, when they want some help, we can help them. I feel fortunate to be able to do things with my hands, with skill. Neighbors say, “We need help.” I say, “My son’s coming!” I go out there up the road and my neighbors say, “Thank you for chopping my wood.” That’s a good thing about being with family. We don’t have to worry, we got help on the way.

Mom knits. She could knit anything you wanted. She knits toques and mitts and sweaters. Sweaters sell for big money, like hundreds. When we get wool, we sell knitting. That’s part of being from around here. All of our people from here can do it like that. When we were kids, she’d have so much knitting. There was a clothing store, the Golden Rule, in Bellingham, Washington, that wanted her knitwear, so they’d close the store and let us shop. She’d put a shopping spree on for us. We’d all get new clothes from her knitting. She made a sweater with a buffalo design that brought us good money. Around here, they like whales. Other places we traveled, they like buffalos. But we know what comes from knitting. If you have a hard time, the knitting will put you ahead. You’ll stay warm, and people will give you money for it.

My dad taught me about the chainsaw, driving, hockey. He had a vision for me to be a hockey player and saw an ad in the newspaper for an arena at Okanagan.[2] We traveled over there and for fifteen years, I played ice hockey. Still live the dream. I was really lucky to have a hockey career here. Our community helped us. I’d go door to door, tell neighbors I’m doing a skate-a-thon, and they’d give me free skates. I won free registration for ice hockey. I skated with the best people. Through hockey, my friends are many.

My dad passed away around 1984, when he was forty-two. He was a residential-school survivor and he took in a lot of alcohol, so probably alcohol took his life.[3] And he was just far too amazing to have a short, short life. He taught me the roads, going to communities to help people having hard times, traveling to see family, to gatherings. My dad’s friends and relatives, elder guys also teach me different things. Working together, we form a crew to go get wood. A lot of people have these tools, like the chainsaw, ax, and wedge, but the way we use them, nobody knows besides us. We use the young maples and the cedar. We burn the maple and alder for smoking fish, and we use the cedars for hanging bears and use the fir for the big fires. We make trails when we go into the forests, and it looks like a sidewalk, we’ve made such a good trail. Sometimes the younger people come along, so we slow down and show them, or we let them pack wood, and let them feel what it’s like to get that heavy wood up on their shoulders. They thrive.

In Canada, Aboriginal rights are protected under the Constitution Act, which guarantees status and non-status Indians, First Nations, Inuit, and Métis the right to participate in their traditional activities on their ancestral lands. In the words of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs: “Salmon are a resource treasured and shared by all Indigenous Peoples within British Columbia. They are born in one area, grow to maturity in another, and live their adult lives in marine waters, to return to the place of their birth for their life cycle to continue. All Indigenous Nations [in the province] have territories which include either oceans, rivers, streams or lakes so salmon are seen as binding all Indigenous peoples in British Columbia together. When salmon are threatened, the livelihood and way of life of all Indigenous Peoples are threatened.”[4]

In addition to the Douglas Treaties, which confirm the right to “carry on fisheries as formerly” for Blaine’s band, the right to fish was reaffirmed by the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision in R. v. Sparrow (1990), a defining moment for the country’s Aboriginal fishing rights. In that case, the Musqueam Nation asserted its right to fish; the government of Canada claimed that First Nations’ only rights were those granted by the Fisheries Act. The court ruled that Aboriginal rights could be taken away only through clear and explicit legislation, and that the Fisheries Act had never extinguished them. Sparrow defined Aboriginal peoples’ right to fish for food, social, and ceremonial purposes as a right to be given priority over all of the fisheries uses, aside from conservation.

*

My son Michael is twenty-eight, Austin turned nineteen, and Bobby, he’ll be eighteen this year. We live seasonally, hunting and fishing; everything comes seasonally to our lives here. Like now, in January, we’re going to clear the way for the new year; we’re going to physically get ready, strengthen up to go fishing in the springtime. It’s a really good time of year. We got about three boats that we like to go fishing on and once we start, we go for months, we’re never home. We just head out here and do some cod fishing. We head to the mainland and do some crabbing with our cousins, and then we do the Fraser River and we fish eulachon. And we fish spring salmon. And the sockeye’s really good when it happens. Then we fish the Goldstream River for chum salmon. We get fish from Port Alberni to Nanaimo to Duncan, Merritt, or Kamloops, and anywhere in between. We go to the mainland, and because we have prawns and clams, people we trade or sell to there ask, “Where’ve you guys been?” They want all of our fish because they don’t have the salty fish. That’s just a part of being from here. We prepare ourselves to get out there, to stay away from home, to be ready if it rains, for the winds. We have to be alert, to be ready to get out of the way of Mother Nature. We have to pay attention.

When I take my sons fishing, they listen. It really makes them happy to learn the way we do it, so they can teach their friends all the things that we do—crabbing and fishing and hunting. Once we’ve done the work of one task, we can go to the next. I’ve trained my son on the fishing rod. He’s younger than everybody else and he’ll out-fish them. When we’re catching fish, it gives us strength to go get a deer. We’re not tired and weak, we’ve already been busy, that’s what gives us the strength. We use the same strength that we’ve been building to go to the next part of the calendar year. That’s what we carry around.

Our friends are always saying, “You guys got the fish?” And that is part of living the treaty, because that’s our connection. We can get the fish and it helps us in our daily living.

Once we get the fish, we have to start getting wood, collect good smoking wood. We get maple or alder—I favor those, it’s how I was trained. And once we get that fish home, we start getting the sticks to hang the fish. You get all the tools and you form a team to help cut the fish. And then you get to smoking the fish, and it’s like the fish are still alive. They all move when the fire starts.

It’s ten months fishing and in September, we get some time off. It slows down. In September and October, we can get some hunting in, and that’s a whole other way of living. We get deer and ducks. We only get to use our guns for a little while, and then we’ve got to put them away because we hunted already and we got no more places to put our meat. We’re not overloaded, but we got some of each.

I do this for my food, for my living. Our friends are always saying, “You guys got the fish?” And that is part of living the treaty, because that’s our connection. We can get the fish and it helps us in our daily living. When we have the fish, we’re going to do good. We make fish and chips. Oh, you’re going to spend fifty bucks? No, we got it right here. We bring our own fish and chips. It’s good for all of us that I swap fish. That’s our medicine. Last time I didn’t even take one home, I gave it all out. All my fish went out, so it all had to be good.

*

Industrial resource extraction and sources of pollution severely impact Aboriginal title lands and waters, degrading coastal areas. Today water in the area is contaminated, poisoning salmon, shellfish, and other marine life. Traditional harvesting grounds, like the clam beds around Brentwood Bay where Blaine’s family gathered clams, are also poisoned and destroyed.

We had the best places in town to sell our clams, but we won’t do it anymore because of the contamination. We don’t want to hurt the tourists. Private land owners lease the land to businesses and the run-off of everyday life—the stuff that comes from the junk yard, the scrap yard, the lumber mill—has done a lot of damage over the years. All the contaminants going into the ditches, and the ditches run down to the water, and down to the clam beds at the beach. It’s bad for the whole area. It kills the ground and where the fresh water used to run, it’s now contaminated. Because it’s private land we can’t regulate it or tell people what to do.

I would say the problem started twenty-five years ago. We used to be able to pack three-hundred-pound bags of clams. And now we don’t do that at all. When we do the clam digging now, there’s almost nothing there. A lot of people don’t have a car or a boat to go to the other places where it might be better, so we need our local beaches.

When I was twenty-five, thirty, there was more salmon, and I was fishing every other day. Now I’d be lucky to go once a week. Why would there be less salmon?

There’s lots of change. There’s no more canoe races. The canoe paddling, it should start now, because it’s a change of season and the days are longer, and it’s time to start running and training to get your wind and get your strength to paddle.[5] You have to be in shape, and the diet’s really strict. You can’t have the drive-through diet, and you have to have water and less sugar intake.[6] Training has to be done daily. You have to be in shape to be on the canoe. You have to be pure to get in the canoe. And it’s a good life because you end up going to all the different areas, to the different reserves that host the races. But people don’t do it as much today. It has to be picked up. It’s time to do it now, start running, and form the team, the committee, team dinners, fundraisers, so they can travel the canoe. It takes the full effort for everybody to do it. You need a whole community. Today there are less canoes because there’s more to do. Cell phones and computers, it’s tough to beat them.

A lot of people have technology with them now. If they get in trouble, they ain’t gonna go ask Grandpa, they’re gonna ask their iPhone. The only thing they want Grandpa for is a ride, or money. They’re going to say, “How do you fix the car?” and their phone will tell them. And that’s how people work now. If they didn’t have any of this phone stuff, they would say, “Okay, work tomorrow?” And more things would get done like that, together. Back in the day, there’d be houses full of ten kids each. Today, people quit at two and three kids. And how do you get two or three to match up to ten kids? Lots of areas around here, work is affected. Nobody hand digs the garden in the spring. And you don’t see anybody cut wood, you don’t see anybody make a canoe. They say, “Okay, well, I’m going to phone somebody and get somebody else to do it,” never mind doing it themselves. I wouldn’t want to just have all that.

*

The decline in the province’s wild salmon population is attributed to a number of factors, including overfishing, pollution, and rising water temperature due to climate change. The federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans has been criticized by some researchers for consistently allowing too many fish to be killed in its commercial and recreational fisheries. Other research suggests that fish farming along the sockeye’s maritime migration routes is transmitting pollution and diseases to wild salmon. Fish farms pollute and damage the marine environment surrounding the net pens, and lights submerged in the waters can attract wild salmon, increasing their risk of being harmed. One concern is a parasite called sea lice, which attach themselves to the fish, weakening or killing them. Opponents of fish farming are convinced it increases the number of lice in the open ocean. For the province, the farms are a big business, with around $1.5 billion in revenue and 6,600 jobs tied to the industry.[7]

In January 2019, the Dzawada’enuxw Nation filed a claim asserting that the farming of Atlantic salmon in their traditional waters constitutes a violation of Aboriginal rights. If they succeed, the lawsuit would force closure of the fish farms that affect the Dzawada’enuxw Nation, and it could serve as legal precedent for other First Nations looking to shut down farms across the British Columbia coast.

When I was twenty-five, thirty, there was more salmon, and I was fishing every other day. Now I’d be lucky to go once a week. Why would there be less salmon? Because everybody wanted to fish for a million. Everybody wanted to make a million bucks, so they got out there, fished like hell, and now there’s no more fish. The fish are not laying enough eggs because everybody caught the fish. They got bigger bins, bigger nets, more nets, bigger boats. It’s bad for the whole cycle, and it’s never gonna get better. In our own lives, it’s what we’ve seen. You can’t bring it back.

The Douglas Treaty protects us in more ways than just hunting and fishing. The outside world is encroaching on us.

The fish farms lead to contamination and pollution. Our water goes straight to the farms. One of their nets broke last year, in the States, in the San Juan Islands, an hour away on our boat.[8] Everything that those farms leave in the water gets on our fish. Also, the water is warmer—the fish will mob around, and if the river is too warm, they won’t come up. Not only the river but the land changed, too. The new growth was cut. And what they planted is now big and they can cut again. So the trees went just like that—right in front of us. They grew up and they’re cut down and they grew up again and they’re cut down again. That’s how much they log here.

We just have to be after it all the time, taking care of ourselves. If you get a taste of our fish, you wouldn’t want to go buy it from the store. You’d want to get it yourself. And it’s pretty hard to be generous when you can’t even get it for yourself. We have our own kids sit right there and say, “Want to have some fish and chips, then?” If we don’t have it, that’s another shock to the whole family, when we ain’t got no fish!

*

They want to put us in boundaries. But we’re treaty Indians here. The Douglas Treaty protects us in more ways than just hunting and fishing. The outside world is encroaching on us. You don’t have to go far—you’ve got businesses over there, you’ve got businesses coming here, and the treaty has held a lot of it off. Businesses could easily look at our land and want to take it; they want to do stuff here.

We have the oldest existing treaty in British Columbia, the Douglas Treaty of 1863.[9] All of my life, every day—that treaty is alive in me and that’s what I live by. It’s always, “Oh, thank heaven I’m a Douglas Treaty Indian.” Now we have to go bigger. We have to spread the treaty more. We were given that a long time ago so we have to save it for more than just our own kids. I was born into the treaty. I actually live it, and it leads back to my sons. I’ve put a lot of the teachings in them. I really hope they’ll continue to make a living this way because it’s been a really, really good life. I don’t see this way of living going away. Hunting and fishing—I believe in it. I can use my fish, my deer, my elk, and my moose, and have a feast with people. I have too much, I can’t eat it all myself. The kids—they want to learn that and we want to teach. I hope my kids are resourceful so they can teach whoever they come across. It’s quite the challenge if you aren’t resourceful or you don’t live by the treaty or you don’t have ways of catching stuff. We don’t just think, Oh, we’re going to wish for this. We make a lot of effort to get what we’re after. You know the song “Huntin’, Fishin’ and Lovin’ Every Day”?[10] He’s singing about me! Everything that I do every day is in that song. My sons and I love it.

*

[1] Kamloops is a city in south-central British Columbia with a population of close to 104,000 people. It sits at the confluence of the two branches of the Thompson River. The journey from Tsartlip takes about six hours by car and ferry. Musqueam is a First Nations band in British Columbia whose reserve lies within Vancouver’s city boundaries.

[2] Okanagan is four hundred kilometers northeast of Tsartlip, on mainland British Columbia.

[3] For more on the residential schools, see the glossary, and for more on the intergenerational effects of the schools, see appendix essay 2.

[4] See Union of BC Indian Chiefs, “Fish Farms, Zero Tolerance: Indian Fish Don’t Do Drugs,” www.ubcic.bc.ca/fish_farms_zero_tolerance.

[5] Blaine is referring to the tribal canoe journey, an annual celebration for Indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest. Dozens of communities participate, with representative groups traveling in oceangoing canoes and visiting other Native nations on their way to each year’s final host destination.

[6] He is referring to a fast-food diet.

[7] See Greg Rasmussen, “It’s Wild Salmon Health vs. Money and Jobs as B.C.’s Fish Farm Fight Comes to a Head,” CBC News, June 18, 2018.

[8] The San Juan Islands are in northwest Washington state.

[9] The British government declared that only the Crown could acquire land from Indigenous people, which was to be enacted through the negotiation of treaties. However, unlike in the rest of Canada, much of British Columbia’s land was never ceded or signed away through treaties made with the Crown. Ninety-five percent of British Columbia remains unceded. The Douglas Treaties covered parts of Vancouver Island, and Treaty 8 (1899), made between First Nations and the federal government, included part of the province’s northeastern corner. Together these areas make up the 5 percent of ceded land in the province. For more on the Douglas Treaties and modern treaties in Canada, see appendix essay 1.

[10] The song is a 2015 recording by country music artist Luke Bryan.

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how we go home

From How We Go Home, edited by Sara Sinclair. Used with the permission of Haymarket Books.

Sara Sinclair
Sara Sinclair
Sara Sinclair is an oral historian, writer, and educator of Cree-Ojibwe and settler descent. Sara teaches in the Oral History Masters Program at Columbia University. She has contributed to the Columbia Center for Oral History Research’s Covid-19 Oral History, Narrative and Memory Archive, Obama Presidency Oral History, and Robert Rauschenberg Oral History Project. She has conducted oral histories for the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and the International Labor Organization, among others. Sara is co-editor of Robert Rauschenberg: An Oral History, published with Columbia University Press in 2019.





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