As a drizzle begins to fall and clouds roll in to hide the sunshine, Chief Ed Pierre walks gingerly to the Katzie dock, tracing a path he’s followed a hundred times.
The row of fishing boats bob up and down in the Fraser River, coffee-coloured by the spring melt, as a wind whips up to chill a warm spring day.
Usually the end of winter heralds the start of the oolichan season, but today there’s isn’t a soul on the dock, from where Pierre and his ancestors have launched their boats for thousands of years.
Pierre doubts his boat – the Shel-Cherie – will launch more than a few times this year.
Last week, he learned the Katzie’s seasonal allotment for the silvery, oily oolichan has been reduced to 50 pounds.
“That’s three fish each for 40 elders,” Pierre says incredulously, wondering how he’ll perform a King Solomon-like task of dividing the meagre catch.
Like salmon, oolichan live nearly all of their lives in the ocean and return to their home rivers to spawn the next generation.
Historically, the oolichan would return in such large numbers that they were easily captured by the thousands in large nets or wooden weirs.
When he was a child, Pierre recalls schools of dead oolichan littering the banks of the Fraser River, a few feet away from the once bustling dock.
“In my lifetime, it’s almost gone.”
Pierre has fished on his own since he was 13, but is quick to point out he never considered it a job. Like many Coast Salish, he feels an uncanny draw to the river in spring, a seasonal pull that’s in his genes and flows like a strong current through his blood.
“We never had to leave the Fraser River,” says Pierre, remembering the abundance of a time past. “It’s our lifestyle. It’s our basic survival. It’s not something we just did for winter eating. It’s something spiritual. It’s something we teach our children and grandchildren”
But these days, teaching his grandchildren the ways of the past is difficult.
The salmon runs have dwindled, the oolichan have all but disappeared. He considers himself lucky to have tasted a giant white sturgeon before they were classified endangered.
Pierre learned to fish from his parents and grandparents, who fished from row boats.
He learned to read the weather, knows the birds that follow spawning salmon and oolichan up river and has memorized the location of hidden, dangerous sandbars from Pitt Meadows to Hope.
He still relies on the knowledge passed down by his elders, seamlessly combining it with the modern technology on his boat.
“That’s how we learned. It’s not in a book. It’s listening to the earth,” he says.
“My parent’s generation never thought this day would come, when there would be a shortage.”
On Saturday, Pierre is inviting the community onto the Katzie First Nation reserve to share a salmon feast and learn more about the fishery that was and still is an integral part of First Nation lives.
The event will feature Women in Fish, a live performance detailing women’s contributions to what was once a top industry.
Pierre still keeps his commercial fishing license, as a symbol of hope, so to speak, a portent that one day before he gets too old, he may cast his nets again.
“I’m one of those die-hard guys,” says Pierre, one of four Katzie members who still purchases a license every year.
“It’s just part of me.”
On the eve of her 18th birthday – Sept. 7, 1962 – Eileen Lorenz, with her first child in her belly, joined her husband and brother on the Loretta B as it headed into the gulf, only to encounter a storm.
The Loretta B keeled under a violent westerly blow, tossing five men and Eileen into the dark sea.
Tied to fish crates, Eileen was set afloat, but the men surrendered to the ocean, their bodies never to be found. After six hours in the eye of a storm, Eileen was plucked from the water – a day and a year older, still eight months pregnant.
Growing up on Galiano Island, Eileen’s story was part of folklore.
Just five when the sea swallowed the crew of the Loretta B, Rosemary Georgeson remembers her mother anxiously waiting by the radio in their kitchen to hear if her father, out fishing in the same storm, was safe.
“In those days, if you turned the radio dial all the way over, you could pick up the boat calls at night,” remembers Georgeson, now in her 60s and whose serene face bears the strength of a life lived on the ocean.
“My father was at the mouth of the river. It was so rough, no one could get out. We knew Eileen was pregnant and we had to just wait. The whole world just stopped, waiting to hear my dad’s voice.”
Eileen’s story – a tale of strength, of terror, of sheer resilience – is one Georgeson has never forgotten.
“It’s stayed with me every time I went on a boat,” says Georgeson, who began cod fishing with her father at the age of 10.
“I was always scared to lean over and look too far into the sea. We were going out into the same water where they were lost.”
For Georgeson, women like Eileen who ran boats, hauled nets, who worked alongside men, were something she took for granted.
“I had no idea First Nations women were not recognized in this industry. I had not idea their stories were not valued,,” she says.
“It was just a way of life. I never knew that years on we’d be sharing them and remembering them like this.”
She first wrote about Eileen in a short story, which was scooped up by her cousin, Marie Clement, and eventually woven into a production that’s part documentary, part performance, titled Women in Fish.
Through photographs, video and verse, Georgeson chronicles the role women played in what was once a flourishing industry.
They did more than just wait on shore to clean and cook the fish. Women owned and operated trollers, worked in canneries and, just like Georgeson, raised their children on boats.
“I’ve always been on the water. It was our home,” says Georgeson, who still heads out on her boat every summer.
“I was a young fisherman and I always believed I’d be an old fisherman.”
She realizes she is perhaps the last of her generation to experience a life at sea, to live off a season’s catch.
Her young nieces and nephews often retort in surprise when she regales them with tales about fishing.
“You really did all that?” they exclaim in disbelief.
As much as there’s a sadness in remembering a time that has, perhaps, passed, there’s hope in Women in Fish.
As her production travels across Canada, Georgeson has collected more tales, weaving them into a gill net that captures the storm and calm of living off the land. Her net has gathered stories from elders, from women who still fish, from young people who are determined to save the fishery.
At the turn of the 20th Century, there were almost 100 canneries in B.C. This year, Georgeson doubts there will be a commercial salmon season.
“We retain our fishing licenses in hope,” she says, her voice halting with despair.
“We wait just like everyone else. We have a coast that’s in limbo, waiting to see where we are going to land.”
Women in Fish is part of a special celebration on Saturday April 27 at the Simon Pierre longhouse at the Katzie First Nation reserve in Pitt Meadows. It will include displays, a salmon BBQ, performance and more.
Urban Ink’s production of Women in Fish begins at 11 a.m. Seating is limited. Please RSVP to the ACT in Maple Ridge by calling 604-476-2781 or email Karen Pighin at email@example.com. The performance is free. The salmon BBQ lunch, which begins at 1:30 p.m., is by donation – suggested amount $10.
• Archive photos, courtesy the Maple Ridge Museum: A Katzie family drying fish on the reserve in Pitt Meadows and a First Nations woman preparing salmon for drying on the rack behind her, taken in somewhere in Lower Fraser region in the 1970s.