How the Kwikwetlem First Nation are returning salmon to the river that sustained their people for thousands of years

George Chaffee has always been skilled in the three things the Kwikwetlem nation really cares about: archaeology, the environment and fishing.

The three men came to the meeting with a blanket and tobacco, looking for guidance. George Chaffee isn’t traditional, though he respects it and wants to make a good first impression.

Chaffee has always been skilled in the three things the Kwikwetlem (kway-quit-lum) nation really cares about: archaeology, the environment and fishing. But it wasn’t until 2000 when he got asked by his nation’s fishery manager, Glen Joe, that he got involved with the historical restoration effort.

Since he was 14 he had been taught by various Elders about the importance of heritage, and the Coquitlam River. How the river was once filled with a bounty of fish. How it sustained his nation for thousands of years and how his great-great-great-great-grandparents referred to the salmon as ‘the food in their cupboard.’

After years of stalled attempts to negotiate and jumpstart the salmon population with local city and governmental groups who monitored the Coquitlam River in early 2000, Chaffee was put in touch with an Elder at Chehalis First Nation who might be able to help.

The Elder was like an encyclopedia on negotiating, Chaffee was told, and would be their best shot at help. He was semi-retired, however, and tired of the seemingly ongoing fight to negotiating for Indigenous rights, but agreed to meet with Chaffee.

The three men, Chaffee, Glen and Marvin Joe, the chief of the Kwikwetlem First Nation, walked into the room.

The Elder, Albert Phillips, was sitting on a couch holding his cane and wouldn’t look at the group. The 80-year-old Elder just looked straight ahead.

“Go,” he said.

The chief looked at Chaffee, and urged him to explain what brought the men here.

Chaffee poured his heart out. He told Phillips about the Coquitlam River, and their struggle to restore the river to its former glory. When he finished speaking, Phillips looked at him and responded.

“Ok, you can leave now.”

The three men looked at each other, with failure in their eyes, and exited the room. It was the longest drive home of Chaffee’s life.

Three days later, Chaffee, Glen and Joe were sitting in the band office, when they got a phone call. Phillips wanted to talk to the men again and the group raced up in their car to meet with him.

This time, when they walked into the room, Phillips was looking at them. He opened up about his past. Specifically, how he was taught by his Elders to deal with governmental groups in a positive way, using culture at the forefront of his messaging. Although he was tired, he agreed to take Chaffee on as a student.

Phillips only had two conditions: listen, and don’t question his instructions.

“Do you understand?” he asked.

“I do,” Chaffee replied.

A 100-year-old problem

The peoples of the Kwikwetlem First Nation have lived in what is now called Coquitlam for at least 11,000 years. The name, Kwikwetlem, refers to the sockeye salmon that used to run plentiful throughout the Coquitlam River and Coquitlam Lake — in a direct translation from hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓, Kwikwetlem means ‘Red fish up the river.’

“I think of the salmon as my family,” Joe said to CBC in December 2020. “My brother, my sister, my father, my mother. This is what the sockeye mean to me as a person who comes from the Sto:lo culture.”

Over 100 years ago, however, a project that created the Coquitlam Dam wiped out the entire population of salmon that swam in the Coquitlam River.

According to “Red Fish up the River,” a 2001 report on the Coquitlam salmon migration by Vancouver-based environmentalist Will Koop, the earliest (and only written) correspondence between the Kwikwetlem Nation and the federal government came in 1899.

The chief at the time, Chief Johnnie, penned a letter to the federal government that outlined how salmon nourished his nation. He asked the federal government for compensation, $5,000 per year for the 80 families living there at the time, because of the dam’s construction. But, Koop says their requests went unanswered.

So, while the dam provided electricity to the homes and streets of Metro Vancouver, the salmon of Coquitlam, an ancestral symbol of the Kwikwetlem peoples, were gone — left without their ability to swim upstream and fertilize eggs in the calm waters of the lake.

Becoming a ‘new warrior’

One of Phillips’s first teachings to Chaffee was how to become a ‘new warrior, specifically, how to tackle issues with knowledge and culture, rather than spears and weapons. He taught Chaffee to successfully negotiate with BC Hydro, who monitor the Coquitlam Dam, and implement salmon restoration technology. He taught Chaffee to believe that fish could be restored to the river, and gave him inspiration to lead the concrete steps needed to fulfil that goal.

City development and the Coquitlam Dam, Chaffee says, caused silt to accumulate in the lower portion of the river during low tide and made it difficult for salmon to breathe. The river spent years on the Outdoor Recreational Council’s list of Top 10 Endangered Rivers in the province.

Salmon were continuing to die and Chaffee was tasked with figuring out how to save them. At the same time, construction on the new Port Mann bridge was going on nearby, so Chaffee and the Kwikwetlem First Nation successfully negotiated with Metro Vancouver to build an environmental project as compensation for the highway construction.

The Wilson Farm Habitat Enhancement Project was built in 2011 with help from scientists and fish habitat experts. The project is 178,000 meters squared of the Coquitlam River and features self-regulating tidal gates to help salmon move back and forth during low and high tide. With increased water flow and silt containment, the river lost its endangered status in 2013.

“We made a channel [around Wilson Farm] so that the fish, the smolts, could go in there. When they did, low tide would come and the gates would close and all the smolts sitting in there were allowed to breathe,” Chaffee says. “When high tide came again, it reopened and they could shoot out and come back.”

A recent study

Earlier this year, a study led by UBC researchers and the Raincoast Conservation Foundation reported that up to 85 per cent of historical habitat for salmon in the lower Fraser River — which the Coquitlam River feeds into — had been lost due to dikes, flood plains and city building.

Specifically, according to the report, more than 1,200 barriers are preventing salmon from accessing over 2,000 km of streams in the Lower Mainland.

“It’s easy to forget, sitting in Vancouver, that there used to be salmon streams every couple of blocks,” says Riley Finn, a lead author on the report and research associate in the faculty of forestry at UBC.

Finn says the report was the first chapter of his team’s goal to examine obstacles impacting salmon habitat and serves as a baseline to put into perspective just how much had been lost due to urbanization over the years.

“The original idea was to look at these barriers and prioritize them — so find out which ones make the most bang-for-buck in terms of restoring habitat or removing the structure,” Finn says. “Before we can do that, we have to look at how much of a difference removing a specific barrier actually makes within the historical context.”

The Fraser River is one of the greatest salmon-producing rivers in the world, the report writes. Finn says the Lower Fraser’s size, along with the amount of lakes and other rivers flowing into it, increases the diversity of salmon.

Although diking and floodgates help prevent floods and human catastrophe related to extreme weather events, Finn says tide-regulated floodgates — such as the one installed at Wilson Farm — that facilitate an open passage as much as possible are one example of how technology can work to foster salmon movement and stop flood potential.

“A lot of the older structures are these top-hinged, heavy iron doors that open when you have the hydraulic head upstream. That’s sufficient enough to push them open, otherwise their default position is closed,” Finn says. “That really isn’t necessary most of the time.”

While there’s a lot to be done to restore salmon habitat, Finn hopes the report will guide non-governmental organizations and Indigenous groups and organizations with the political willpower to make decisions on the ecological opportunities and locations that will best serve the salmon.

In 2008, a single adult sockeye salmon returned to a fishpen located just below the Coquitlam Dam and released into the Coquitlam Lake Reservoir.
In 2008, a single adult sockeye salmon returned to a fishpen located just below the Coquitlam Dam and released into the Coquitlam Lake Reservoir. Josh Kozelj

A longing for home

Salmon have a longing for home. No matter how far from home they’ve strayed, adult salmon have a remarkable capability to recognize familiar scents of the upstream riverbed where they were once fertilized years ago.

When mature salmon get an urge to reproduce, they are habitually drawn to their own birthplace. To complete the circle of life, salmon navigate through river channels, warming waters and even humans to reach their home.

Upstream waters are much calmer than lower portions of rivers that feed into larger bodies of water, giving the salmon’s offspring a higher chance of survival. Within a week of spawning, the adult salmon dies — forcing their youth to navigate the calm, open waters by themselves. The adult’s bodies, however, decompose on the surface of the riverbed, establishing a nutrient-rich environment for their recently hatched eggs.

In 2006, 11 sockeye salmon adults from a group of 200 smolts, an adolescent stage in the salmon life cycle when they are ready to venture out to sea, returned to the Coquitlam River to fertilize eggs after being released from the river two years earlier.

The run marked the first return of sockeye salmon to the area in 100 years.

In 2008, a single adult sockeye salmon returned to a fishpen located just below the Coquitlam Dam and released into the Coquitlam Lake Reservoir.

“That day was the proudest day in Kwikwetlem’s history,” Chaffee said. “When that happened, [Joe] had just finished kissing the fish and as he was bending down he was saying, ‘Welcome home Kwikwetlem.’”

Returns of salmon have been murky in the years since, with some years resulting in little or no salmon returning.

In July 2020 ­— three years after 5,000 smolts were released by conservationists in the Coquitlam River — hopes for a historic early return were renewed when a single sockeye salmon was found by conservationists and members of the Kwikwetlem First Nation swimming up the river.

Today, the Kwikwetlem First Nation have been involved with organizations including Fisheries and Oceans Canada, the City of Coquitlam, BC Hydro and Metro Vancouver municipalities to help restore sockeye salmon to the Coquitlam Reservoir.

‘A ray of hope’

Craig Orr joined the Kwikwetlem First Nation as an environmental advisor in 2005. An adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University’s School of Environmental Science and ecologist focusing on Pacific wild salmon, Orr helped launch Watershed Watch Society as an advocacy group in 1998 to bring attention to the need for fishery and habitat restoration in BC.

As Orr and his team at Watershed Watch Society designed waterflow charts and hosted meetings around water use advocacy, he met members from the Kwikwetlem First Nation and agreed to help advise them in their efforts to restore salmon to the region.

“It’s really important to work with First Nations,” Orr says. “I’m a conservation biologist that focuses on salmon, but they have Indigenous rights that some of us don’t have.”

Currently, Orr is working on building a hatchery below the Coquitlam Lake that will help jumpstart the Coquitlam salmon population and serve as a restoration project that won’t impact water quality and bring together other members of the Kwikwetlem First Nation.

“It’s a ray of hope,” Orr said. “It’s going to be good for Kwikwetlem because there are going to be members that are going to have to step up and get trained on how to run the hatchery.”

Orr says he hopes to have a contract written up with the hatchery proposal soon, and a timeline for an in-service date will be set for around the end of summer 2022.

A river on the mend

On a crisp overcast morning in early October, Chaffee hustles into the Kwikwetlem First Nation office with a black rain jacket and white collared shirt.

He spent the morning at Charles Best Secondary School in Coquitlam to talk with students about the Kwikwetlem peoples’ ancestral history.

“I poured my heart into what I had to say, and when I was done those kids came to me and were thanking me,” Chaffee said. “They’re like, ‘How can I help?’, ‘What can I do?’ … It was a beautiful thing to see.”

Chaffee is a believer in knowledge. As his relationship with Phillips grew and grew over the years, in his teachings on how to negotiate with city and governmental groups on Coquitlam River restoration efforts, he was mandated to pass on the lessons he learned — Kwikwetlem history, negotiation tactics, Coquitlam River environmental history — from his Elders to future generations.

“I was always told that I’m not allowed to hold onto that information. It is information that is given. That was the deal when [Elders] taught me, [they said] ‘I will teach you this, but it doesn’t belong to you. You must pass it on to another generation.’”

Years ago, the Kwikwetlem peoples would celebrate the life of the Coquitlam River with an annual drumming ceremony. When Chaffee thinks of the Coquitlam River now, he sees potential for its future.

He sees it as a living being on the road to recovery. In the not-so-distant future, he hopes, Coquitlam settlers and people from across the region will know its past and respect its future.

“For the future, you ask me, ‘What do I see?’” he said.

“I see First Nations and governments drumming together for the greater health of this river.”