Celebrating our Lifeblood: local histories, local watersheds

Treasure Box Puppet Theatre's performance at the Herring Celebration

Conserving wetlands and watersheds first starts with appreciation and motivated communities. Most Canadians are aware of the importance of our water to human life, to the functioning of civil society, and to the overall health of our environment. Public awareness campaigns about the overuse of water have lead many people to take shorter showers and turn off the lights (don’t forget all of the dams that give us hydro power!) but is this really enough? When communities become aware of their local resources and the impacts to them, there may be more of a desire to protect and conserve them. This past weekend has brought many unique opportunities to participate in the appreciation of local watersheds and their inhabitants from multiple perspectives: a performance at the Museum of Vancouver, a Wonderful Wetlands tour in Langley, and a celebration of Herring in North Vancouver, which I’ll share below.

Songs of the False Creek Flats, Museum of Vancouver

Songs of the False Creek Flats, an interdisciplinary exploration of the history of Vancouver’s False Creek, was an eye-opening event held at the Museum of Vancouver in conjunction with a related exhibition, Maraya Project. Architect and UBC Adjunct Professor Annabel Vaughan, Vancouver Folk icon Veda Hille, and Vancouver’s Emergency Assembly Choir animated the life of our local watershed in stories, a slideshow, and accompanying songs. Veda and Annabel have extensively researched the history of False Creek from its original uses by the Coast Salish peoples (Sḵwxwú7meshTsliel-waututh, and Xwméthkwyiem) to colonization and the eventual infilling of the mouth of False Creek and tributaries for development and industry. While the story is quite sad with regards to local First Nations communities and the health of our connection to the Salish Sea, the performance was not simple or one-sided. We were given an understanding of the larger picture from many perspectives: stories from the Coast Salish, children of early settlers, residents of floating shanty towns and Italian immigrant farmers during the Great Depression. Some moments were particularly humorous, such as in Veda Hille’s song narrated in the voice of Vancouver mayor Charles E. Jones (who in the 1940s ordered the filling in of False Creek) which chanted “Fill the dirty ditch, fill it in! fill it in!”. Stories of the old connection between False Creek, the Strathcona neighbourhood, and of Trout Lake were also fascinating. In one case Annabel spoke of a Salish tale where a seal was harpooned in False Creek, but swam away and was later found in Trout Lake with the harpoon still in it’s side! It was also acknowledged that sea grasses still surface in Strathcona yards which was once an estuary and floodplain. It was exciting to see an artistic and accessible academic inquiry into what has happened to the lifeblood of Vancouver. The approach to these ideas is inspirational in light of the Lost Creek Fen project that we are participating in within the same neighbourhood. We felt privileged to be party to this performance and told Veda Hille our thoughts after the show from a wetland perspective, which she seemed happy to hear. If only her songs were recorded and available- we’d be sharing them with all the Wetlandkeepers we know!

Wonderful Wetlands Walk, Langley

The next morning lead us to the site of the West Creek Wetland in Langley for a free tour put on by Metro Vancouver in collaboration with the Langley Environmental Partners Society. The 163 acres of protected land (as of 2007) is not open to the public, and so this was a special occasion. The diverse ecosystems represented in this park-in-waiting offer both deciduous and coniferous forests, a lake (formed from West Creek by two resident beaver families), a remnant bog and many pocket wetlands. Because of this diversity and the genuine poverty of forested wetlands in Langley (80% of wetlands have already been destroyed in the area), the site is highly significant and is used by 170 species of animals, including 18 known endangered or threatened species (Pacific Water Shrew, Oregon Spotted Frog,Western Painted Turtle…). The protection of this land was made possible by the combined care and action of community members and neighbours who partnered with larger environmental organizations, and is really a poster child for what can happen with simple appreciation and community action. Roughly 15 individuals joined the tour, including members of local stewardship groups and interested citizens. Together we walked through the protected lands where our guides Lena (of L.E.P.S) and Roy (from Metro Parks) shared valuable information and stories on the site. Amid the delicate cascades of Indian Plum, showy Salmonberry blossoms and glowing Skunk Cabbage (our local tell-tail signs of spring!), we learned about the history of the site with examples. We passed an old Cedar carefully stripped on one side and now scarred (by the Kwantlen or Squamish people who once resided near the site), and polygons of Wasabe plants left behind when a Japanese family made an attempt to farm the land. Stopping at West Creek, Lena and Roy passed around Freshwater Mussel shells found on site that indicate a very healthy watershed. We also had a great lesson on Beaver anatomy and culture at the Wood Duck Lake where pelts, skulls, paws, and tails were passed around and the Beaver’s scent mounds were observed. We left the tour feeling saturated with our new knowledge that we can apply to an upcoming restoration project in Langley (in partnership with L.E.P.S), and were excited by the shared experience we had with people from all around Metro Vancouver.

Howe Sound Herring Gathering, North Vancouver

Racing off to North Vancouver, we made it in time for the first Howe Sound Herring Gathering organized by Paul Berlinguette of the North Shore Wetland Partners and hosted by the Squamish Nation at the Eslha7an Aboriginal Learning Centre. The event was put together with the hopes of organizing opinions, concerns and conservation strategies that can later be taken to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. An opening prayer and presentation by Randall Lewis (Environmental Coordinator to the Squamish Nation) functioned as a beautiful prelude to an artistic interpretation of the local Herring population. The Treasure Box Puppet Theatre lead the group through the life cycle and critical relationships of Herring to the Eel Grasses, waterbirds, fish and whales of the Salish Sea through representations of animals and plants with a backdrop of drumming. This reflected the creativity required to initiate a conservation project: a variety of approaches and knowledge sets are necessary to engage the public in community action. Paul (past participant of our Wetlandkeepers course and upcoming participant in the 2012 Sea-to-Sky Wetlands Institute) brought together individuals from many different interested parties including representatives of the Squamish First Nation, ex-fishers, university professors, residents, citizen and professional scientists, and local stewardship groups. The gathering allowed for the sharing of stories where each of us identified ourselves to the group and our relationships to the cause, thereby creating a powerful network of like-minded individuals. To give a background on the Howe Sound/Salish Sea Herring population, Dr. Jon Matsen presented a lecture and slideshow that articulated our known history of the local Herring, how
they have been harvested from past to present and their decline in the Metro Vancouver area. With a history of early False Creek settlements and development, we were once again brought back to the sad story of our local watershed. Dr. Matsen described his deep understanding of the Herring from personal and professional knowledge, and this was supplemented by comments from Randall Lewis and other stewards. Everyone had something to share, and I could not help but see this as a powerful force. Herring are critical to the health of of our oceans and watersheds- they are food to so many creatures and are on a steep decline. It is unfortunate that with the development of our cities we have actively destroyed riparian areas that are used by Herring to spawn, that we have polluted spawning grounds with fuel, noxious chemicals and creosote, that we have over-fished Herring populations and continue to do so for foreign markets. While Dr. Matsen has been 
experimenting with ways to counteract these impacts, our federal government is making it increasingly difficult to protect Herring populations. With the potential gutting of the Fisheries Act, the protection of riparian habitat, rivers and watercourses may no  longer be a priority. In fact, the cultural, economic and environmental values embedded in the oldest Canadian environmental act may no longer apply.  

The health of our wetlands and watersheds is becoming increasingly urgent, and citizen action is a real responsibility. While it is easy to complain about the problems with our government, this is not a solution. What we need is citizen action- where communities come together and share their combined resources. Only then will we be able to take our voices to the powers-that-be and protect our waters, our lifeblood.

For more photographs from these events, see our Flickr set!

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