Meet the Preserver: Eddie Gardner

20 December 2023General

As the salmon go, so do we. That is how critical, how magical, how magnificent our salmon are.

Each autumn to winter, a natural symphony unfolds in Chilliwack — a choreography of wild salmon, the steadfast presence of cedar trees, and the life force of the river itself. Beyond this natural wonder, lies a story steeped in significance and history, intricately woven into the fabric of the region. As salmon seek refuge in these waters, the significance of their habitats and life cycles becomes a call to action for preservation.

We had the privilege of speaking with Eddie Gardner a Stó:lō Elder and Sqwá First Nation Councillor of Lands and Resources, where he shared insights into his enduring commitment to safeguarding wild salmon, revealing a narrative of activism that has spanned years and emphasizes the urgency of protecting these vital ecosystems.

Read Eddie’s interview below, and learn how Chilliwack is where nature, history, and activism converge, compelling us to recognize our role in preserving the health and well-being of these connected natural areas.

Please introduce yourself!

“My name is Eddie, and my Xwelmexw name is T’ít’elem Spáth or Singing Bear. I was born in Hope, BC and grew up in Sept-Îles, Quebec. In 1994 I returned home to Chilliwack, and I got fully engaged with our language, our culture and our people. It was such a wonderful time to come back and get grounded in the Stó:lō.

I worked for Stó:lō Nation Employment Services for a few years, following this, I worked with Xyolhmeylh for about a year and a half.  I then moved back to Stó:lō Nation filling the position as Day Treatment Program Facilitator until I retired in 2011.Ever since I returned to the Stó:lō Territory, I started to learn the Halq’emeylem language, and I enjoyed learning how to sing and pray in our language. I went through four levels of learning our language and took linguistic courses – I now have intermediate fluency. It is quite an achievement. I am working towards fluency – It is a huge challenge. It is steeped in our land and our history and is what our ancestors have left us.”

Where did your activism journey start? Was there a moment that compelled you to become an activist?

“The moment that I felt I had to throw myself at it and fully engage was when I went to a big rally that Dr. Alexandra Morton organized when she made her walk down Vancouver Island to Victoria. She was really engaged with removing open-net fish farms from the migration routes of our Fraser River salmon and so she did a march from the northern part of Vancouver Island down to Victoria. As I learned more about what the fish farms were doing to our salmon, it made an impact on me.

Our wild salmon are endangered already and if we don’t save our salmon, it is going to have a huge impact on who we are as Xwelmexw people – we are salmon people. Those are our relatives, so when we consider a species like a relative, that is very meaningful and very unique, and so I decided at that moment that I would continue. Especially when Anissa Reid, who was working with Dr. Alexandra Morton, came to me and said, ‘I am so pooped, I am so tired. I can’t do this anymore.’ She had all kinds of signs and banners and said, ‘I am giving all this to you Eddie, because I know that you will do good things.’ That took me totally by surprise, so I took it on and said, ‘Okay, I will carry on the good work that you did,’ because she was such a driving force and a very creative and talented woman.

As a Stó:lō, and as a member of the Sqwá First Nation, we consider ourselves to be the salmon people. We consider ourselves the people of the river, so the profound and deep connection that we have with our salmon is real and we take it to heart.

Eventually, we organized boycotts all over British Columbia and sent tools and signs and things like that to different areas across BC to raise awareness about the harm that fish farms are doing to wild salmon and their habitats. I was working on my own, coordinating things, and I needed help. So I put it out there, and we created what is called the ‘Wild Salmon Defenders Alliance.’ We held rallies, and eventually there was an occupation of the fish farms that lasted quite a long time (one hundred eighty-two days or so.)

That made a huge difference in getting the fish farms out of the Broughton Archipelago and we continued to fight to get fish farms removed from the BC coast. More recently, we were able to get the fish farms out of the Discovery Islands. I have also been able to work with our Pelólxw Tribe to put some incredible resources together with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans to restore what is called the Hope Slough (formerly called the Sqwá:la, which is a side channel to the Stó:lō, the Fraser River.)

We have four pillars to that project: The first pillar is riparian work; to take away foreign species like the Himalayan blackberries and plant some of our natural species. We are leaving some there like cottonwood, but planting things like cedar wood, willow, and bushes that will provide shade to the water to keep it nice and cool for the salmon. The second pillar is to create holding ponds so that the water will rise and flow over to increase the flow of the slough, adding more oxygen to the water for the salmon. The third pillar is for us to do water quality testing all along the slough so that we can determine what kind of pollution is in there. Once we identify all the pollutants, we are going to find out where that pollution is coming from and develop a plan to address and stop it. The fourth pillar is to create these salmon spawning beds – remove some of the silt and put in some new gravel for coho and spring salmon (chinook) to spawn because they still swim in those waters.

We are engaging our young people to get involved with these four pillars because they are the future stewards of this land. We want to develop land guardians and our young people need to be at the forefront to be able to care for the land and the resources that we depend on. Biodiversity is critically important.

Once we complete this first stage of the work to clean up the slough, we’ll have resources that are going to come together to create a large culvert that will allow the Fraser River to flow back to the Hope Slough and then it will become the Sqwá:la. That will do wonders and increase the flow. So all the bridges and culverts need to be upgraded so that when we do open up the river, the Stó:lō, the Fraser River, will flow down and will have some room to go. It will mediate some of the flooding further down and will make sure there is no sedimentation or debris in the slough because it will be flushed out – which will allow the gravel beds to continue to be nice and clear for the salmon to spawn and renew their cycles.

But in addition to all of that, we want the use of the Sqwá:la for our canoe races. We want people to be able to go in there and use their kayaks and people from all backgrounds can come and enjoy the Sqwá:la – even swim in it! Because you can’t swim in it right now. You know we want to open it up to everyone and ensure that it is well taken care of in a way that will protect our salmon and our sturgeon.”

How can those young people get involved?

“They can work with our knowledge keepers – the ones that know the history of the waterways and ecosystem. They can get involved with riparian work – planting trees and looking at how that is done so that the trees can grow high and have a variety of other rooted ones around there so it’s not just cedar trees and cottonwood.

We want [the young people] to be associated with some of the scientists that are there working on the project – fish biologists, hydrologists, and other technicians that can go out and do that kind of work, and [teach] our young people to learn about some of these scientific tools. As well, we want our young people pursuing more credentials to become land guardians, or Shxwelistexw te Téméxw in our language. So they will have ‘two-eyed seeing,’ which is critical in today’s world.  We need both – the good minds of Western science, but also our snoweyelh – our wisdom, principles, laws and values.  We need to integrate that into what needs to be done to create a good space for co-existence with our sxexómes – our relatives in the natural world, the gifts we have been given by the Creator.

What would you say has been the biggest issue affecting salmon habitats in recent years?

“Well, that is a great question. There are a lot of issues related to that of course. Climate change is a huge factor, but there is municipal and industrial development that is taking place that is disturbing some of the wetlands – the fish habitats. And that needs to be restored, protected and conserved, for the well-being of future generations.

We are working with the S’ólh Téméxw Stewardship Alliance and they have a ‘People of the River’ referral office. And so we have that ability to influence what is taking place in our territory. Our territory goes from Langley up to Hope – that is a very large territory for us to cover. The S’ólh Téméxw Stewardship Alliance brings together seventeen First Nations, and Skwah First Nations is one of them. I sit on the board of that and I represent our community.”

How can a local or visitor in our community make an impact on preserving salmon in our community?

“I think it is really important for all citizens to be first of all be educated on the UN Declaration on the Rights of First Nations People, and be aware of what the province is doing to align their laws and regulations to be in harmony with UNDRIP. So that raises the consciousness of citizens to get engaged and see how important that is. When they do this, that is an act of reconciliation with First Nation’s people.

There are a number of organizations that are engaged in doing good work to protect the fish in their habitats. One of them is the ‘Watershed Watch Salmon Society’ – we are working with that organization. We are also working with The David Suzuki Foundation as well. We are working with local citizen groups like ‘Friends of the Hope Slough’, which have now changed their name to ‘Friends of the Sqwá:la.’ The Fraser Valley Salmon Society works with people who do massive clean-ups of the river, like the Vedder River and the Fraser River and its tributaries.

We have another project, Xá:y Syí:ts’emílep – Gill Bar. You may recall that there were a lot of ATVs and trucks that were running through the Gill Bar area, destroying the salmon eggs and the home of the sturgeon and that was horrible to watch – it was painful to watch on TV what was happening there. But a lot of people came forward and were supportive of having that shut down. We work collaboratively with the city, the province and the federal government because we said, ‘We need to protect this area.’

What we want to do is create an Indigenous Protected Conservation Area with some interim measures to convert it into a park. We want it to wind up being an Indigenous Protected Conservation Area that is led by a management plan led by the Pelólxw Tribe in collaboration with the city of Chilliwack. So we do have a project that is addressing that. That includes terrestrial studies, aquatic studies in that area, and Indigenous management components. We succeeded in getting Gill Bar closed off so we can carry out the work that we need to conduct those studies of the sturgeon and the salmon so they will be well cared for.”

In your own words, please tell us about the January 1st event.

“January 1st was started about twelve years ago. I met Grace Kelly, who is a really good friend of mine, at the Vedder Bridge and it was on January 1st – we were talking about raising public awareness of the value of the river, the salmon, and the cedar to people who come and enjoy this whole area. She said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we had a ceremony on January the 1st to start the new year in a really good way that people could relate to?’ So we chit-chatted and said ya, let’s do that! Let’s have a ceremony to honour the salmon, the river, and the cedars.

We had our first ceremony about twelve years ago. We would get our drummers and singers and we would sing to the water, we would do an offering to the river, using our cedar and our salmon. And so we put the news out that this was going to happen, and low and behold, there was a really good showing. That took place just at the Vedder bridge. That is where it all started. And so over the years, it’s like an accordion, there were smaller groups some years, larger groups in others. And now people are so excited about it, there are lots of people who want to come and participate in the ceremony. Everyone walks away with an elevated feeling of joy – an inspiration that they can do something about caring for the salmon, the river, and the wetland habitats. I came to know and realize what the Snoweyelh means to people and how that resonates with the human spirit, especially during this time of climate change. What can we all do individually and collectively, about caring for what sustains our lives? That is the biodiversity that our wild salmon supports.

Our wild salmon are considered a climate regulator by scientists in today’s world. Because they feed such a wide range of species, from the oceans, all the way up to the headwaters and back. And all those animals and birds and fish, all those species, even those that carry the salmon out to the bush and they only eat parts of it. Salmon remains in their scat, which brings the rich nutrients from the ocean, like nitrogen, to the roots of trees. And they cultivate and make the forests strong. It’s the forests that provide us with the oxygen we need to breathe and absorb carbon from the atmosphere. That is how critical, how magical, how magnificent our salmon are.

And there are so many endangered species right now, there are so many threats and it is incumbent on everybody to show care, love, gratitude and respect for them. For everybody who comes to live around here, it is important for them to raise the value of the salmon way up high so that they will be inspired to do their part to ensure that we have this magical, beautiful creature continue its cycles, and to ensure that the cycles get renewed to the extent of, perhaps not the strongest runs from the past, but to increase them anyways. We have come to tell people, that as the salmon go, so do we. If the salmon disappear, there are going to be serious consequences for us, bar none. So when people come to the ceremony, they hear the teachings of the Snoweyelh, they hear the teachings of how we need to care for another and this beautiful part of mother earth of ours. 

We engage our young people with the ceremony. We create tobacco ties, or prayer ties, and we get the young people to say their own little prayers. We raise the tobacco ties, create a little fire and put the ties in the fire and our prayers go to the four directions, and we encourage people to open their minds and hearts to the messages of the ancestors to guide us on how we will move forward together. My friend Ernie Victor said, ‘It is really important for us to do a food offering for all the ones who lost their life in the river.’ So when we do that, we feed the spirits, and we acknowledge the power of the river. It is a life force, but it can also take life. We raise the consciousness of the people who participate in it as well. 

We do a wonderful walk as well. The ceremony has moved from the Vedder River down by Peach Road and now it is being conducted at the Great Blue Heron Nature Reserve. I love that because we do that walk from the Great Blue Heron Nature Reserve Interpretive Center and we walk down to a site that is probably a kilometre down the trail to a nice open area. It is all flat so it is accessible for people – it is a lovely wonderful walk. When we get there, that is where we conduct the ceremony and we have our drummers and singers and speakers to partake in the ceremony. Then after the ceremony is over, we go back and there is a cedar tree that we planted- it is growing higher every year, so we do an offering to our tree of life. After that, we go back to the centre and share a little bit of food and then we all go our separate ways all feeling happy.”

Anything else you would like to share?

“I think that because we have the ceremony now at the Great Blue Heron Reserve, the Great Blue Heron Reserve is a really inspirational place – because it used to be an army base and that whole area used to be kind of like a moonscape. People came together and recreated, restored, and rebuilt the ecosystem. Just on the weekend, I could see some of the Kwólexw, Dog salmon, swimming up in a stream over there. There have been sightings of bears and cougars and coyotes and all the blue herons are there. It is so interesting to see the biodiversity there. So that is what really inspires people when they learn about [the Salmon, Cedar, and Water Event,] to take part in all these other initiatives of restoring the habitat of our salmon, sturgeon, and trout.

Just think, what would happen if people lived together in a good way? The teachings sound simple, but it is complicated. It is really something you have to embody and live. We have to live together in a good way, and what drives us to do that? We do have all kinds of teachings and values that we need to have, and that is cross-cultural understanding and respect – it’s not being afraid to approach one another, and do some sharing so there is a good understanding.

And I think those are the simple ways to come to understand one another and get along better. We have tools now to do that, between First Nations and the rest of society – we interface, and we have to live bi-culturally. We have tools like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report and all its recommendations and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. We have the province that has created a United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act. We have lots to work with to create that good relationship, so we can live in peaceful coexistence with one another and with our relatives in the natural world.”

We would be honoured if you would join us and Eddie at the Great Blue Heron Reserve at 11:00 am on Monday, January 1, 2024, as we walk down to the Vedder River to participate in this meaningful ceremony to honour the salmon, the river, and the cedars as we enter a new year. While we’re there, we’ll pause at the cedar tree that was planted to make an offering of salmon and tobacco. Returning to the Great Blue Heron Reserve where we’ll share lunch before we go our separate ways. We hope to see you there!

Date: Monday, January 1, 2024

Time: 11:00 AM

Location: The Great Blue Heron Reserve

We gratefully acknowledge that we gather on the traditional, ancestral, and unceded territories of the Pil’alt and Ts’elxweyeqw Tribes, who are part of the Stó:lō-Coast Salish Peoples. We recognize the longstanding relationship that Indigenous peoples have to this land as they are the original caretakers.

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