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In a smoky long house, Indigenous leader seeks First Nations unity to save salmon

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A beam of sunlight poked through the log beam roof of Victoria's Mungo Martin House, creating smoky shadows as Indigenous dancers circled a fire in a celebration of wild salmon.

Members of the Namgis First Nation from the Alert Bay area of northern Vancouver Island gathered at the traditional long house to honour their deep connections to the fish on National Indigenous Peoples Day.

Eighty-two-year-old hereditary chief Chris Cook said he remembered years ago when local rivers and streams were filled with wild salmon.

"I'm not a scientist, but in my time when I walked this earth and I became a fisherman … you could walk on the fish," he said on Friday. "What happened to them?"

Cook said over the years that coincided with the arrival of salmon farms on B.C.'s coast, there was steady depletion in wild fish numbers.

He said he and the Namgis hope the days of plentiful wild salmon will return after the federal government this week said it would ban open net-pen fish farms in B.C. waters by 2029.

Cook is pleading for unity among B.C. First Nations to rebuild wild salmon stocks.

More than 100 B.C. First Nations say they support the removal of open net-pen salmon farms, but about two dozen First Nations operate such farms and oppose their closure.

"I would like to say to the First Nations of the coastal people: come together with us," said Cook.

"We have agreed with every tribal group from Alaska to the Fraser River. Come together so that we can make changes."

He called on coastal First Nations to meet and unite to rebuild wild salmon stocks. "I am the salmon people," Cook said.

"I am here. Let us meet some place so we can talk like this in our big house."

Critics of the farms say they can spread disease and lice to wild fish although recent science indicates uncertainty over the risks.

Former federal fisheries minister Joyce Murray, who championed the phaseout of the open net-pen farms, attended the Namgis gathering at the Mungo Martin House.

"I can't think of a better way to spend National Indigenous Peoples Day than right here with you in our honouring and celebrating wild salmon," she said.

Transportation Minister Rob Fleming also attended, representing the B.C. government.

The federal and B.C. governments and the First Nations Fisheries Council signed a trilateral accord Friday to urgently address the decline of wild Pacific salmon.

The Namgis gathering was part of celebrations across B.C. to mark National Indigenous Peoples Day.

The Surrey area Katzie and Kwantlen First Nations hosted a wellness cultural event at the Bill Reid Millennium Theatre in Cloverdale, while Canadian Indigenous singer William Prince was scheduled to perform at the Comox Valley Exhibition Grounds in Courtenay as part of Vancouver Island's Ko'moks First Nation's celebrations.

In Vancouver, the Squamish, Musqueam and Tseil-Waututh First Nations held a street party at the Carnegie Community Centre in the city's Downtown Eastside.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 21, 2024. 

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