Originally published in the Island Tides on October 20, 2016.
When the W̱SÁNEĆ leaders and Sir James Douglas met to negotiate peace treaties in the early 1850’s, they were attempting to reconcile two vastly different worldviews.
To Douglas the dozen or so “Douglas Treaties” were about land. They were written in order to protect the first settlers living in the small forts and the land surrounding them that they needed for food production. To the W̱SÁNEĆ the treaties were only partly about land. As importantly, the treaties were about water.
The language was simple. The WSANEC were to have the freedom to “hunt over the unoccupied lands, and to carry on their fisheries as formerly,” the implications are broad.
In his book The Salt Water People Dave Elliott says, “We, the Saanich People, were salt water people. By that we mean the sea was very important to our way of life.” He continues, “We had a large sea area in which to fish and hunt sea mammals. There are no rivers in our territory and so, we went to the sea to get our salmon. That is why we are the salt water people.
Dr. Nick Claxton wrote in his paper To Fish as Formerly: The Douglas Treaties and the Saanich Reef Net Fishery, “The W̱SÁNEĆ lived in highly developed cultures with intricate social system and models of governance. A major component of this system was the SX̱OLE, or reef net fishery. This system allowed the W̱SÁNEĆ to live and prosper within the bounds of the Saanich territory for many thousands of years.”
The W̱SÁNEĆ hunted game and harvested food and medicine crops from the land, but the relationship ocean that was critical to our ancestors who negotiated with Douglas. As Tsawout Elder Liz Underwood said recently while opening an event at the Shaw Centre for the Salish Sea in Sidney, “when tide goes out our table is set.”
In the early 1980’s my grandfather, Ernie Olsen, told us of the time when “you could walk across the Saanich Inlet on the backs of the salmon to visit our relatives in Malahat.” Maybe a fish story, but he expressed his concern about the diminishing food stocks in the once bountiful Sea.
These days his fears have been realized; the beaches are perpetually closed to shellfish harvesting, wild Pacific salmon stocks in decline and the southern resident killer whales are dangerously close to extinction. Meanwhile, the provincial and federal governments push ahead with their plans to industrialize the Salish Sea.
In 1992, the BC Treaty process was established and over the three decades that followed, negotiations focused on land claims. The importance of the ocean to the W̱SÁNEĆ (Straits Salish) people has been overlooked.
The right to “fish as formerly” has never been recognized. In the early 1900’s, the reef net fishery was outlawed, effectively disconnecting the W̱SÁNEĆ from their intimate relationship with the ocean.
With liquefied natural gas (LNG) projects proposed in the Howe Sound and Saanich Inlet, a massive expansion of container ship transports into Robert’s Bank and Kinder Morgan’s threat of tripling shipments of diluted bitumen through the Salish Sea, W̱SÁNEĆ elders have clearly told the provincial and federal governments that they cannot continue to ignore the importance of the ocean and what it means to our culture and the quality of all our lives.
The ocean is more than a location for industry to operate and a superhighway to move goods. It is the very essence of life itself. In 2016, as we struggle to balance our relationship with the land, the W̱SÁNEĆ people remind us to never forget the critical connection we have with the fish and sea mammals of the Salish Sea.