Wind, Water & Oil
"I would like to extend my special thanks to our very first guest blog writer Forrest Berman-Hatch. I am honoured to have such an eloquent and passionate writer be featured here and I hope his experience is as inspiring to you as it was for me. Please see the end of the article for more information on Forrest." -Mitty
Cedar and salal flank both sides of the busy boat ramp and the entrance to the government dock at Cates Park. The park is a new creation, but the shattered shells spat up from the earth tell of a deeper history, proof of thousands of years of continuous human use. Each shell was harvested by the people of the inlet and cast aside after a meal. Stories of feasts and gatherings, voices raised in song and laughter which still echo in the landscape today. Over time the shells accumulated, forming the very embankments that line the shore.
I found Will George as he was readying canoes. Two midsized vessels, eight paddlers each. He gave directions as he packed gear and supplies, strapped children into life jackets and handed me a paddle. Weathered and ageless, the creases across his brow suggest a man with a lot on his mind, though his eyes flash with the light of a born trickster, one who sees into many worlds. Will’s stated purpose for that day’s canoe journey was to “lay down medicine” in front of the Trans-Mountain pipeline terminus and along the oil-tanker routes that run through Burrard inlet. For all of their history, Tsleil-Waututh have been “the people of the inlet”. Today, Whey-Ah-Whichen, or Cates Park, sits on the north side of the inlet, by the city of Vancouver, British Columbia. To the west loom the cranes and claws of Vancouver’s port and the spires of Lions Gate bridge, which mark the entrance to the Salish sea. To the North, steep mountain sides covered in second-growth forest flank the long narrow fjord known as Indian arm.
Tsleil-Waututh’s connection to this place is readily apparent in their name for the inlet itself: “Tsleil-Waut”, a word which can also be used for a single Tsleil-Waututh person and means “calm water”. The relationship between this sheltered sea and its people goes back to the mists of transformation and is defined by the ever-shifting intertidal area. The intertidal is the interface between ocean and land, belonging entirely to neither. As an ecosystem, the region offers habitat to many creatures which provide critical ecological services. Eelgrass offers refuge from predators for juvenile salmon, as well as playing active roles in ocean and climatic cycles. Shellfish filter the pollutants from water and combat ocean acidification. And it is their shells which mark village sites along the coast to this day. Around ninety percent of Tsleil-Waututh’s diet came out of the inlet. A Tsleil-Waututh saying captures this view of an ocean people:
"When the tide is out, the table is set."
In addition to bivalve shellfish, salmon were, and continue to be, culturally and economically critical. In Tsleil-Waututh territory, Salmon harvests would take place in rivers and at the river’s mouth. Fish were caught using technology such as fishing weirs and stone traps. In this method, known as tidal pulse fishing, a trap is constructed in the upper-intertidal zone, fish enter the trap at high tide but find themselves trapped as the tide recedes, causing essentially zero bycatch. One-way Tsleil-Waututh not only maintained but actually increased the maximum sustainable harvest of healthy chum runs was by selectively targeting the male salmon during spawning season, allowing the females to carry their eggs upstream. Management decisions such as these are far removed from the regulations of modern commercial fisheries, which harvest quotas of certain species indiscriminate of gender, as well as recreational regulations which are determined by size and season.
There are seventeen known rivers and streams with histories of salmon spawning that flow into the inlet. Notably, the Indian, Seymour and Capilano rivers all formerly hosted abundant salmon runs. Chum, Pink and Coho salmon were all known to have migrated in large numbers into Burrard inlet and up its various streams and rivers to spawn. Sockeye and Chinook were rare in the inlet but could be found in staggering quantities just 10km to the south in the Fraser River— which supports the continent’s largest sockeye run to this day. Oral historians of the Tsleil-Waututh maintain that their Nation would negotiate with the Musqueam Nation for the right harvest from the Fraser during Sockeye runs.
All along the coast, one of the year’s most significant events is the salmon’s seasonal return to spawn. In a journey that begins in their birth rivers, Pacific salmon spend 2-4 years in the ocean and can cover distances of over 6000 kilometres before returning to their birth rivers and streams, where they may fight against the flow for hundreds more. When salmon returned to their natal streams their numbers were epic in scale. Even today, in a time when the effects of overfishing and climate change have led many fisheries scientists to ring the alarm bells of collapse, the Fraser River still records sockeye runs in the millions, with 2022 seeing the return of nearly seven-million sockeye. Still, this was a far cry from the initial hopeful forecasts of over nine-million, a discrepancy which incited fear among First Nations, scientists and commercial fishers. The return of the salmon on the coast of the Eastern Pacific was one of the world’s great animal migrations, and while its light may be dimmed, it remains a passage of complex cultural and ecological importance. It is a journey shrouded in mystery, something only underlined by the fact that scientists still debate to this day the mechanism by which salmon find their way back to the rivers of their birth.
But today fish stocks are a pale shadow of the runs of old, and the intertidal— the table itself— has been poisoned. Due to industrial activity in the inlet high levels of toxins have resulted in a blanket ban on bivalve shellfish harvesting since 1972.
In the beginning our journey was unsteady as the wind gusted over the inlet. Paddling northwest, we saw Strathcona park, or Say-umiton, meaning “place of good water”. In front of Say-umiton lies an intertidal terrace, commonly known as a clam or sea garden. Sea gardens are built by human hands, clearing beaches of stones to create sandy clam habitat and constructing low walls from large stones in the lower intertidal. The rights and responsibilities to these places are usually held by an individual or family, who would maintain the garden and harvest creatures from it. Sea gardens create desirable habitat, but they are far from monocultures: entities harvested from these spaces include butter, littleneck, and horse clams, cockles, red rock crabs, whelks, sea cucumbers, sea urchins, octopus, chitons, seaweeds and even assorted salmon species. By levelling the gradient of the beach, sea gardens also slow erosion and mitigate storm damage. Faced with an era of melting glaciers and rising seas, researchers from the University of British Columbia are working with Tsleil-Waututh and other Nations to explore sea gardens as a possible sea-rise adaptation strategy. Climate change whispers, the future must look to the past.
We live in a time where the vast majority of British Columbians have never stood in an intact old-growth forest, and no one alive today has seen a truly healthy salmon run.
Since industrial-scale fishing predates fish stock monitoring, fisheries scientists debate what a healthy return would even look like. But not everyone has forgotten, and to those that grew up on stories of what was, today’s reality casts a shadow over what could be.
Will rose to prominence in 2018 during the Trans-Mountain pipeline blockades. He had worked most of his life as a high-rise window washer and salmon fisherman. That changed when he was charged with the defence of his territory by the elders of his community. His mission: stop the trans-mountain pipeline expansion and resulting increase in tanker traffic.
Will was given a traditional Tsleil-Waututh name —Swaysǝn— which means “when he speaks others listen”.
In 2022 Will was sentenced to 28 days in jail for protesting the pipeline expansion, but it was hardly his first brush with colonial law. In 2018, he rappelled off of the Second Narrows bridge with six other water protectors. They fastened themselves into hammocks suspended under the bridge and flew long banners emblazoned with Tsleil-Waututh designs. They set their ropes so they would hang just low enough that a waiting oil tanker could not pass underneath. They hung there for thirty-five hours as the tide shifted beneath them seven times.
Obviously, Will denies none of this. He does, however, believe that the court is displaying its ignorance in giving him the same sentence as the other environmental activists who were arrested protesting the pipeline. After his sentencing the Tsleil- Waututh Nation published a statement explaining that while the other arrestees are environmental activists, Will is being charged for defending Tsleil-Waututh’s unceded territories, a distinction which has not been acknowledged by the colonial courts. Will maintains that so long as he is on his traditional territories, he is a protector, not a protester.
The Trans-Mountain pipeline expansion was proposed in 2013. It entails the construction of a 1,150 km pipeline, which begins in the Alberta oilsands and twists out towards the coast— terminating in Burnaby on Tsleil-Waututh territory. Once operational, the pipeline would increase the transportation of oil to 590 000 barrels a day, causing a sevenfold increase in tanker traffic in the inlet and the Salish sea. Tsleil-Waututh contested the project since it reared its head, fighting it at every level of the Canadian court system and asserting their right, as guaranteed by the United Declarations of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), to withhold consent to industrial projects on their territory. At no point in the Nation’s history, did Tsleil-Waututh ever surrender their title to the inlet, and therefore even under Canadian law their territories are unceded.
Tsleil-Waututh opposes the pipeline due to its potential impacts on their territory, citing in particular the threat to blackfish, or orca whales, which are of great spiritual importance. The Nation has identified the threat of an oil spill as a danger to the ecosystem they are fighting to restore, but even absent a spill the increase in underwater noise generated by the tankers is predicted to interfere with the blackfish’s sonar system, making it difficult for the already critically endangered southern resident orca population to hunt and communicate. Tsleil-Waututh took their case against the pipeline all the way to the Canadian supreme court, but even as they appealed, the Texas-based Kinder Morgan pipeline company began construction. The Nation turned to blockades as a last resort. Their appeal against the project was struck down in 2020 anyways, with the supreme court ruling that consulting the Nation was enough to ensure the project’s legitimate approval. The Tsleil-Waututh Nation maintains there is a significant difference between consultation and consent.
In 2018, as construction began to heat up, Tsleil-Waututh and volunteers built a watchhouse near the pipeline terminus to serve as a base of operations. An encampment grew up around it. A sacred fire remained lit at all times for the months-long campaign. Tsleil-Waututh worked with local environmental groups to blockade the pipeline facility, their strategy was to convince Kinder Morgan’s shareholders that the pipeline was not worth the trouble. Over two-hundred people were arrested for violating a court injunction issued to stop the blockades. In April 2018 Kinder Morgan suspended investment in the project and those opposed celebrated what they believed was the beginning of a famous victory for Indigenous rights and the environmental movement. Then a month later, the federal government bought the pipeline and vowed to build it.
Tsleil-Waututh took their case against the pipeline all the way to the Canadian supreme court, but even as they appealed, construction began. The Nation turned to blockades as a last resort. Initially the cost of the project was $5.4 billion, but by the most recent federal estimates, costs will come to at least $21.4 billion. Environmentalists have also pointed out the inconsistencies between the federal government’s pledge to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050, and the construction of a fossil fuel pipeline that will be operational far longer, driving further emissions into a warming world, melting icecaps and warming the already depleted oceans. The project is four years behind schedule. Construction is ongoing and— despite Tsleil-Waututh’s resistance— the Trans-Mountain pipeline is slated to be completed in late 2023, with the remaining costs to Canadian taxpayers estimated to be $12.6 billion.
As we paddled into Say Nuth Khaw Yum—Serpent’s Land— often known these days as Indian arm, Will guided the canoe easily over the gentle waves. The arm offers shelter from southwesterly winds and so the canoe cut through the water at speed.
Will explained that we were tracing the ancestral seaway into the Tsleil-Waututh’s salmon harvesting territory, which is shrouded in legend. Long ago, a giant two-headed snake blocked the entrance to the arm somewhere north of Deep Cove. The serpent cut the people off from their main fall fishery, guarding the entrance to the arm and killing all who stood against it. Eventually, a warrior underwent physical and spiritual preparation and canoed to the arm to face the monster. He killed the serpent and ensured the survival of the Nation.
In 2014 Tsleil-Waututh Nation member and former elected chief Leah George-Wilson testified to the National Energy Board on the subject of the pipeline. She compared the project to the ancient two-headed serpent, which long ago had to be vanquished to ensure the survival of her people.
Paddling, I find it hard to picture Vancouver carrying on next to an inlet with salmon, herring and orca. Hard to imagine roads and bike lanes above a healthy intertidal habitat, with stewards commuting from home to the sea gardens.
But the Tsleil-Waututh Nation does not agree. Perhaps this difference is because for many raised on the western environmental paradigm the context of our time makes it feel as though we are living through humanity’s darkest hour, but to the Tsleil-Waututh the moment of apocalypse must have come over a hundred years ago. When the people were wracked with sickness, the trees felled and the fish taken. To some who have been paying attention, the world has been ending for a rather long time.
The Tsleil-Waututh’s 2018 Burrard Inlet Action plan, charts out a strategy to revitalize and restore the ecosystem services of the inlet, as well as maintain the people’s ancestral connection to its creatures, as well as the wind, water and tides themselves. The plan is based around the principle that a time frame of at least 100 years must be considered in every decision. Already one sea garden has been reinvigorated, with the first shellfish harvest in Indian arm for almost fifty years taking place in 2016. Their strategy involves both traditional knowledge passed down between generations, as well as ecological modelling being undertaken by scientists at UBC’s Institute for Ocean’s and Fisheries. Tsleil-Waututh does not oppose the Trans-Mountain pipeline expansion out of a desire to inhibit “progress”, but to safeguard it. It is not a protest, but a defence of a vision of what is possible: life in a resilient inlet. They are paddling against this tide, as they have since colonization, to safeguard their watersheds and their connection to the inlet for the generations to come. Despite the looming threats of the pipeline and the warming planet, Will is out on the water. Changing hearts and minds, his canoe reinvigorating the inlet and thus reimagining the world.
Will was handing out smoked salmon and hummus to the paddlers when I came to say goodbye. I thanked him for the honour of paddling with his family, before making my way up the dock and towards the shore. Will was laughing easily with his family and friends after the day out on the inlet. He gave me another sly smile and waved goodbye.
The sky was darkening. The sun slipping away. Golden light from the horizon reflected off the inlet’s shifting surface. Our day’s journey was done, but as the salt-breeze picked up and lifted off the water I turned at the top of the ramp and looked back. Will George had moved down the dock away from the others. Swaysǝn was standing tall and motionless with his back to the shore. He was staring hard out at the inlet, facing the wind, water and oil.
Forrest is a writer and researcher from Cortes Island, on the unceded territories of the Klahoose, Homolco and Tla’amin nations. He studied anthropology and political ecology at the University of British Columbia, where he was also a staff-writer for the student paper, The Ubyssey. He has worked as a sea-kayak guide, climate adaptation researcher and commercial tree planter. Forrest grew up kayaking, fishing and sailing along coastlines of the Salish sea, which imparted a lifelong fascination and respect for the ocean and nearby rainforest ecosystems. Even so, as a young person, he came to realize that he was growing up in the aftermath of clearcut logging, whaling and overfishing. At a similar time, he became aware of the colonial and Indigenous history of the area, as well as the existence of stories not grounded in the western divisions of humans from nature. Stories grounded in reciprocity rather than limited ideas of preservation and extraction. He has been interested in storytelling and “environmental issues” ever since.
This essay came out of two canoe journeys organized by Will George and his wife Roxanne in September of 2022. I had met them both when they were organizers at the Trans Mountain blockades I was honoured to paddle with them. These journeys were undertaken to assert Tsleil-Waututh’s presence on their traditional seaways and territories, as well as to educate youth on their history, territory, and oral traditions. But there was another purpose as well, one aimed at the more than the human world. Will told me he wished to “lay down medicine” over the tanker routes in the inlet. This idea, that the canoes and paddlers had the ability— and perhaps the duty— to help heal the ecosystem fascinated me. This essay grew out of that interest. To me it felt like the culmination of ten years spent living, working and studying in Vancouver on Tsleil-Waututh, Squamish and Musqueam territory. It should be read that way: as an attempt by a settler to look beyond layers of colonization and resource extraction and take a step towards decolonizing the way one sees the land and seascapes around. Set against the backdrop of the climate and biodiversity crisis, different ways of seeing the world are increasingly urgent.
My thanks go out to fisheries archaeologist Megan Efford for her knowledge of the archaeological history of the inlet, Professor Wade Davis and Cristina Mittermeier for their editing and storytelling prowess, and of course, my gratitude to Will and Roxanne for those days in the canoe and their trust in letting me tell the story.
To learn more about the Tsiel- Waututh Nation please visit their website here:
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