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All photos by the author

Life, Salmon, and the Future for the 'Namgis First Nation

Hannah Griffin

The indigenous Canadian community, which has long relied on fishing, sees farmed salmon as an existential threat.

All photos by the author

It's early morning on BC's 'Namgis First Nation, and the morning fog has yet to burn off. Setting off toward the ocean from the Big House and the world's tallest totem pole, a wide road leads you down a hill, in the direction of the water, on this remote reserve on Cormorant Island in the Broughton Strait. A sign stapled to a roadside telephone pole reads, "Emergency Fish Farm Meeting." Before you turn onto Front Street, you pass a vast empty lawn, the former site of a residential school. The institution that indigenous children from coastal communities attended for more than four decades stood in this place until demolished just last year.

The central ferry terminal is the demarcation between the reserve and the Village of Alert Bay, two distinct but connected communities that some refer to together as Alert Bay.

From the 1950s to the 1970s, Alert Bay was the center of north coast fishing. Close to 1,000 fishing boats were registered in the area, and thousands of fishermen and their families would come to the island each week. The money that flowed into the community gave rise to bustling shops, government offices, ten taxis, four churches, two theaters, and a Chinatown.

Sockeye dries inside a smokehouse. There are a range of ways the 'Namgis will preserve the extremely important resource, including canning with salt, barbecuing and canning, and smoking.

Living in the shadow of this once booming fishing industry, members of the 'Namgis First Nation are voicing their growing concerns over the threat of farmed salmon to the wild salmon stocks—an integral part of their culture—while navigating an uncertain economic future.

This morning, a group of men gathers on a dock. These 'Namgis elders and leadership are going to demonstrate at a salmon farm along with members of the Musgamagw Dzawada'enuxw and other Kwakwaka'wakw nations. The Kwakwaka'wakw are indigenous groups who speak Kwak'wala but live in different places and have different names. The farm is in Musgamagw Dzawada'enux traditional territory, and the 'Namgis onboard this morning are showing solidarity with them.

The 'Namgis climb onto the boat, and it cuts through the thick fog for several hours heading east to Gilford Island. There, more elders and a group of around nine youth from Kingcome Inlet dressed in their regalia get onboard and collect on the bow as the boat continues its journey.


A 'Namgis elder and youth approach a salmon farm to demonstrate the impact of farmed salmon on wild stocks.

One elder looks into the ocean ahead and says his worry is that the general public has little idea what the fish farms are doing and how it affects the people who live here. He is here today because he wants to share his concerns over the possibility of farmed Atlantic salmon spreading disease to the wild salmon, but also because he feels his people have never been given proper consultation on the issue. While not representative of the views of every Kwakwaka'wakw person, the people here today want the fish farms out of their waters. The 'Namgis, in fact, own and operate a land-based salmon farm—the first in Canada and what many see as an example of a sustainable method for farming fish.

Anticipation builds as the boat approaches the salmon farm, a massive grid of ocean pens enclosed by metal walkways. Smaller boats begin to bring people onto the farm, and there is a tense conversation with farm employees who let the demonstrators know they are not authorized to be there. One worker dressed in blue-and-green overalls and rubber boots records the scene with a tablet. As more people reach the farm, they peer into the pens, the water pulsing with salmon.


Vera Newman arranges pieces of sockeye in a can with salt. Once sealed, the cans are boiled for four hours.

Around 50 demonstrators begin to walk slowly around the perimeter of the farm, singing and drumming. They make a striking sight: a determined and snaking stream of people, the detailing on their regalia glittering in the midday sun on this farm in the middle of nowhere. After more than an hour, the Kwakwaka'wakw board boats and begin the trip back to their respective communities.

Back on the reserve three days later, John Macko sits on a stump outside a smokehouse full of his drying salmon. The bush behind him hangs heavy with fat August blackberries. He refers to himself as a traditional food harvester, and his life centers on ocean resources, whether he's making valuable grease from a fish called eulachon, catching salmon and halibut from his gillnetter the Pacific Endeavor or clam digging. In the fishing industry for 50 years, Macko says long gone are the days when fishing was a steady and common job. "Nowadays, it's just not reliable anymore," he says, adding it's more common for people to have a regular job but also go out on fishing boats occasionally.


Donna Cranmer, left, filets sockeye salmon while her mother, Vera Newman, cans the fish with salt. The canned salmon will be used to feed guests at a potlatch next year.

On the beach in front of his house, Macko uses a washed-up cedar trunk as a workstation to secure large pieces of sockeye salmon between cedar stakes. He plants the stakes in the sand around a small fire, and the fish barbecues, turning a more muted pink before the surface of the flesh gently darkens. Some will be given away and some canned. Inside his home, he enjoys a favorite dinner with a friend: barbecued sockeye salmon, potatoes and apples, all dipped in rich eulachon grease. For Macko, the 'Namgis aren't the 'Namgis without salmon. "Salmon is the life blood of this village," he says.

The importance of salmon in 'Namgis culture can be illustrated by its presence at everything from casual family dinners to potlatches. Potlatches are ceremonies that mark important events for Kwakwaka'wakw, like naming children, the transfer of rights and privileges, marriage, and death. Guests at potlatches are given gifts, and the more given away, the higher the status of the host. The federal government made potlatches illegal from 1884–1951, and in 1921, a raid during Dan Cranmer's potlatch on Village Island resulted in arrests and the confiscation of priceless ceremonial regalia. These coppers, masks, rattles, and other items were divided among museums and private collections.

Close to 100 years after the raid at Dan Cranmer's potlatch, relatives gather at the house of one of his granddaughters, Donna Cranmer. The family is spending the day filleting, cleaning, and canning sockeye salmon to be used for feeding guests at a potlatch in 2017. A blue freezer bin containing approximately 100 sockeye sits beside the work tables. The fish were frozen from last year's catch—the sockeye run was poor this year, with each household receiving fewer fish than usual.

After the cannery, the net loft was the second most important building in the community when fishing was booming. Fishermen would repair and work on their nets in this building. 'Namgis First Nation now own and still use it.

Donna expertly fillets the salmon. Her mother, Vera Newman, cuts the filets into small sections and arranges them snugly into jars with a single teaspoon of salt. Once sealed, the cans are cooked for four hours.

At the end of the day, the Cranmer family has 168 cans of sockeye, and they gather upstairs at a long dining room table around a steaming pot filled with cooked salmon heads. The chewy cheeks are a favorite part. Donna's father, Roy Cranmer, lives in this home, too. He spent much of his life in the fishing industry. He worries their community will end up like many former fishing towns in Atlantic Canada and sees the future for the 'Namgiseconomy in tourism.

His daughter Barbara Cranmer agrees. She sits inside Culture Shock Interactive Gallery, the business she started with sisters Donna and Andrea. Situated on the boardwalk, it's a popular stop for tourists getting off the ferry. Also an award-winning filmmaker, Barbara started working on her dad's fishing boat as a teenager. While the days of fishing prosperity are over, she says she is tired of hearing about doom and gloom in the community. She sees the rich resources all around and views cultural tourism as the get-behind industry, envisioning 'Namgis owning and operating businesses ranging from whale watching to kayaking. "I think it's a vibrant community trying to find its way," she says.


The original 'Namgis First Nation burial ground on Cormorant Island is full of towering totem poles as well as some that have fallen. Once a pole has fallen, it is seen to have served its purpose and is left to naturally erode.

One challenge the community faces is retaining young families, according to Randy Bell, the human resource capacity coordinator for the 'Namgis First Nation. "We haven't diversified quickly enough to maintain livelihood," he says. "We need to stop losing families." Like Cranmer, he is optimistic that tourism could be the way forward. The beauty, wildlife, and friendliness of the area offers massive opportunity, and he sees the current generation of young people as critical to the community's future.

"I see a lot of resources being shipped away," says Tina Jones. Tina and husband, Marvin, have recently started Alert Bay Seafoods. The couple own a 32-foot gillnetter and lease a commercial salmon license through the 'Namgis First Nation. They don't support open net fish farms and are proud of selling all wild salmon products.

The Jones's hope to eventually open a processing plant on the island to help create jobs and celebrate their natural resources. Ideally, down the line, they hope to combine the business with tourism, offering tours to show all the work and steps that go into fish production. Their path hasn't been without challenges; they had mechanical failure this summer on the boat and had to purchase salmon from other fisherman. Yet the pair is dedicated to pursuing their goal. "We don't want to fail," says Tina.

Inside the 'Namgis First Nation Big House on a hot and dry Thursday afternoon, the T'sasala Cultural Group is in the middle of a performance for tourists. The group is made up of children, teenagers, and adults who dance through the summer, showing glimpses into their culture and ceremonies to visitors. Andrea Cranmer introduces the salmon dance and tells the audience about the threat of the fish farms in the area's waters to the sacred salmon, a resource they have always had. She pauses. "We don't have a dance that represents farmed fish."