“Salmon are to Secwepemc almost like Jesus Christ is to the Christians,” said Mark Thomas, a Shuswap Band councillor and salmon advocate who has spent his career in aquatics and environmental science.
It’s nearly impossible to express how much his people lost when the Columbia River salmon swam their last, he said, asking how a culture can continue without the central unifying force around which to arrange its worldviews, beliefs and actions.
“You were raised in a certain way with certain values, and those values are what causes you to have an identity, what causes you to know what’s right and wrong, what causes you to make decisions on a day-to-day basis whether they be big ones or small ones. And so that’s what we don’t have. We don’t have those oral teachings anymore. We’ve lost all of that,” he said.
“The environment and the animals that are in it… all has a teaching on how to behave. It teaches you about greed. It teaches you about sacrifice. It teaches you about how to be healthy, how to treat your children, how to treat your elders, how to treat yourself. Everything in the environment – and salmon being one of the most important – teaches us those teachings that allow us to be the way that we are. Without them, we are nought. An example of that is the Shuswap Indian Reserve. We are not who we are anymore because there’s no salmon.”
Salmon were so important to his people from time immemorial that even the Secwepemc name means spread-out water people.
“We went to where we knew there was water, we knew there were fish, so that’s then what we did since time immemorial. We’ve subsisted on aquatic environments, mainly on salmon,” he said.
Mr. Thomas can’t convey how devastating it’s been since the last salmon was caught in the Columbia River 80 years ago. The loss is so big it took him years – and his career – to begin to fathom what was lost.
“We had basically everything that is our being stripped from us, whether it be economy, whether it be identity, whether it be social structure, whether it be trade relations with other nations, whether it be our health, all of these different aspects come into play when we’ve lost our salmon. And it’s made us actually different people. It assisted in the assimilation of the Shuswap Indian Band into Canadian society,” he said.
The salmon were gone before Mr. Thomas was born, but he and his grandmother used to walk from the reserve down to James Chabot beach to gather mussels to make chowder. Only now does he wonder if she was collecting mussels as a way to remember the salmon.
“My grandma when I was growing up told me to leave the reserve. She said: ‘There’s nothing here for you. Everything that meant anything to us is gone, and you have to go out there and learn from them, learn what they know, because that’s the only way you’re going to survive in this world… It’s not going to be a life for you, so go out and learn.’ So I did that,” he said. “Ultimately I figured it out and went to school and got the accreditation needed to start making a change.”
While he devoted himself to being “the guy that speaks for the salmon,” he wasn’t convinced that he would live to see salmon swimming in the Columbia River. He even told his children that they might have to be the ones to “carry the torch” forward on behalf of the next generation.
But on July 29th, he represented the Secwepemc Nation as the Syilx Okanagan, Ktunaxa and Secwepemc Indigenous Nations signed a Letter of Agreement (LOA) with the federal and provincial governments to collaborate on bringing salmon back to the Columbia River Basin.
“The fact that we are at this point right now has just made me so joyful. My heart is so warm,” Mr. Thomas said. “The most exciting part of my whole career was the signing of that LOA. That same LOA sat on my table for 10 years.”
According to a joint news release, the five governments committed to “work together to explore ways to reintroduce salmon into the Upper Columbia River Basin. The reintroduction of salmon into these areas, if successful, could restore fish stocks to support indigenous food, social and ceremonial needs and harvest opportunities for Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities.”
His hopes renewed, Mr. Thomas said: “I want my kids to have the opportunity to show their kids traditional ways of life from Secwepemc people. I want them to see a healthy environment. I want them to see bears out of garbage cans and into the river, out of the dumps and into the river. I want to see eagles flying all over the place feasting on carcasses of salmon.”
Mr. Thomas will be speaking at the International Columbia River Transboundary Conference – which he called the “all-encompassing meeting” on the Columbia River Treaty and salmon restoration – in Kimberley from September 12th to 14th.
On September 14th, the Shuswap and Akisq’nuk First Nations will hold their annual Salmon Festival to “share salmon with the greater community, with the public, to tell people: ‘this is what we miss, what we lost,’” he said.
And it will be a time to celebrate what could be restored.
“I believe that my grandchildren and future generations will be able to fish the salmon once again in the Columbia River. This was the essence of our culture and life that kept us healthy not only physically but was the bond of our communities,” said Barb Cote, chief of the Shuswap Indian Band.
While Mr. Thomas will never get the answers to the question that’s lingered over his existence – who he would be if the salmon had never left – he hopes future generations will have their full identity returned if and when the salmon swim again.
“We’re connected to the land, we’re connected to the water, we’re connected to everything here,” he said. “We’re given this huge onus to take care of it, and it’s what I strive to do and I try and teach other people to do the same.”