By Celia Brauer
A crowd of up to 7,000 people gathered on the lawn of the B.C. legislature on May 8. They did not come to hear a rock band, run for the cure, shout out for social justice, or cheer the Olympic flame. Instead, they brought a unique message: they would stand up for wild salmon and show their support for the Get Out Migration—an event created by a group of activists and embraced by thousands from all over Vancouver Island, the Lower Mainland, and beyond, over a period of 17 days.
The main migration was accomplished by hundreds of walkers over a 500-kilometre route from northern Vancouver Island to Victoria in the south. It was spearheaded by Alexandra Morton, a scientist who has been fighting for two decades the ongoing impact on wild salmon of open-net fish farms situated along the B.C. coast. Morton and her loyal supporters had been walking since April 23 in the Get Out Migration. They walked in groups like swimming salmon, migrating down the island and bringing the message that they wanted the open-net fish farms to “get out” to anyone who would listen and join in.
And what a migration it was! As the group wound its way south, it was joined by hundreds of supporters. Organizer Megan Adams said the walk “gave the salmon a human voice”, and there were certainly many who were eager to shout their support. As the ever-growing crowd passed through one small community after another, they were welcomed by many others, including First Nations. There were large gatherings, dinners, and campfires. Thousands added their signatures to a petition. Then came the final Saturday, when thousands more came to support the cause, joining the walk as it went from Sidney to Victoria. At Centennial Square, the crowd swelled once again, and then there was a victorious walk down Government Street to the B.C. legislature, where the migration was greeted by a huge crowd already waiting on the lawn.
“I think we get to keep our salmon.” Those were the words of a visibly moved Morton as she looked out on a sea of faces on the lawn of the legislature. The crowd included people who had made amazing efforts to be there. Particularly evident were First Nations communities who had made the journey for hundreds of miles to show their support. Everyone from the elders to the very young, all decked out in their regalia—capes with buttons and felt designs of bears, whales, eagles, raven, and salmon—and wearing cedar hats and headbands. There was the remarkable story of Ogwila’ogwa (Molina Dawson), a 14-year-old girl from Kingcome Inlet who walked the entire distance and was greeted in Victoria by her entire village. When asked why she did the walk, her answer simply was, “So we can get our salmon back.”
Also present were the crew of a canoe which had paddled down the Fraser River from Hope and across the Georgia Strait to join the migration on May 7. All around, people held fish on sticks, wore fish hats, and carried banners of support and signs of the town where they had started the migration: Sointula, Port McNeill, Fanny Bay, Quadra Island, Tofino, Nanaimo, Duncan, and many more. There was a 20-foot-long fabric salmon that walked on wheels. Many wore salmon costumes, including some dogs! There was what looked like the Canadian flag but instead of a maple leaf, there was a cheeky-looking sockeye salmon smiling and dancing in the wind. Fish art was everywhere. People had painted black sea lice shapes on their faces. Many wore T-shirts sporting the Get Out Migration logo. The day before the event, two long-time foes—Chief Ernie Crey of the Sto:lo First Nation and John Cummins, the Conservative MP for Delta-Richmond East—came together for a common cause. Not only was this the largest protest in B.C. for an environmental cause, it was essentially a great big love-in for fish!
The walk, the closing event, the cause—all were epic. This was not Hollywood; it was real life. “We have been a successful migration,” Morton said as the crowd cheered. She explained that from the time they had started walking, “people helped in every community. An amazing group collected around us and walked the whole way.” She went on to emphasize, “It all comes down to this—do we live in a democracy? This is a test.” The Get Out Migration was indeed a “people’s movement” where you could passionately stand up for what you believed and speak your truth.
This certainly was the first time in history such a swarm of humans stood up for the rights of the wild Pacific salmon—an iconic creature that has served the coast and its tribal people for millennia. It brought back memories of the peace and civil rights marches of the ’60s and ’70s, and yet curiously this was not about the safety or health or enjoyment of humans, although a successful outcome would mean just that. The rallying cry was much bigger than all the humans put together. It was a call for the care and safety of salmon—an environmental indicator that is in serious trouble, a creature which for decades has not been properly stewarded by our elected leaders. Morton said pointedly in one interview that the aboriginal communities she met along the way were especially incensed by the poor state of the salmon, considering how for many millennia they had done an excellent job of stewardship before contact. “The Native folks are saying, ”˜We are, all of us, being asked to accept the loss of what was ours. Now you know how it feels.’”
Speakers at the rally were eloquent and clear in their thoughts. Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs called the foreign-owned fish farms “toxic and repugnant”. He also went so far as to ask the federal and provincial government not to allow a gold mine near Williams Lake, an oil pipeline in northern B.C., and to stop all proposed run-of-the-river projects. Vicky Husband, a legendary environmentalist, said this was the largest and most successful event of its kind she had seen in her long years of activism. Former broadcaster and provincial cabinet minister Rafe Mair had harsh words for Gail Shea, the fisheries minister and he wasn’t the only one on the list of speakers who demanded her resignation. Brian Gunn, president of the B.C. Wilderness Tourism Association, acknowledged that the fish farms employed 6,000 full-time workers, but added that the coastal tourism industry, which depends on a healthy supply of salmon to feed all the wildlife on the coast, supported jobs at least six times that number.
There were words from Fin Donnelly, the MP for New Westminster-Coquitlam, who knows a thing or two about epic journeys since he has twice swam the full length of the Fraser River to call attention to the environmental issues of the mightiest salmon river in the world. Donnelly had just tabled a private member’s bill to move the fish farms to closed containment and he proudly introduced Grade 10 student Thea Block, who had proposed the idea in a contest last year. There was a declaration from Tyee Bridge of the Wild Salmon Circle and Lauren Hornor of Fraser Riverkeeper—one of a chain of groups that cares for rivers across the continent. They asked consumers to join them in a campaign to boycott supermarket chains that sell farmed salmon and to cut off the demand.
There was also a clear warning from Chief Bob Chamberlin of the Kwicksutaineuk-Ah-Kwaw-Ah-Mish First Nation, who has had extensive experience with the salmon farms in his territory. He predicted that come Monday morning, these companies would certainly spin tales about how their activities did not harm wild salmon. True to form, Colleen Dane, a spokesperson for the B.C. Salmon Farmers Association, was interviewed by Global News. “We share their concern for wild salmon,” she said of the protestors. “Salmon farmers are coastal residents who care about the environment. But frankly we disagree that salmon farms are responsible for the decline in the wild stocks and we disagree that removing the salmon farms is going to solve the problem.”
The energy around this issue hearkened back to the days when Jaimie Fulton brought a real dead salmon to the legislature and slapped it around to get the halls of power listening to the issues of the hinterland. In his speech, Grand Chief Phillip mentioned the prophecy that said the day would come when all the nations of the world come together to fight the evil that threatens to engulf human and natural life on the planet. With so many speakers railing about our country’s lack of leadership and the scourge of industrial fish production on wild fish to an amazing group of so many committed humans from so many walks of life, one had the sense the prophecy was on its way to coming true.
The work has just begun. Changing the direction of a nation is a long and arduous process. But watching the crowd at the legislature, you had the sense there might be enough people at the wheel to turn the ship around. If thousands could walk for hundreds of kilometres or take time out of a sunny Saturday afternoon in Victoria to rally for a wild fish, there was indeed hope for a better world in which “those that swim” could be afforded respect among “the two leggeds” and all the other relations. No matter how many people participated in the event (and there have been erroneous estimates in the media of as little as one thousand at the Victoria rally), each and every one of the participants has been moved by this issue and these people will never be the same again. Wild salmon, by their very nature, speak to people’s spirit. After all, the alternate name of the migration was Salmon Are Sacred for a very good reason!
As Morton said, maybe we really could “keep our wild salmon” and sustain our livelihoods as well. Do we really have a choice but to try and figure out how to live in harmony with all the flora and fauna on Earth? Morton said, “Wild fish and people could live side by side.” They had done that already for thousands of years, why not today? Did we need to industrialize fish production or could we trust in wild systems that had been going on for thousands of years and use our human ingenuity to work with that to a successful result for all? At the end of the Get Out Migration in Victoria on Saturday you had the sense that all was indeed possible, that we could have faith in the human spirit and support each other in the work that is yet to come.
Celia Brauer knows what it’s like to organize an environmental event about salmon. She has created and produced a B.C. Rivers Day event in Vancouver, the Salmon Celebration, since 2004. She is a cofounder of the False Creek Watershed Society and works as a volunteer educating the public about the lost natural history of Vancouver, watershed issues, and the state of our wild Pacific salmon.