Eddie Gardner is the ‘wild salmon’ guy of Chilliwack.
He’s been busy organizing rallies outside chain stores selling open-net farmed salmon, part of a national movement he started called the Open-Net Salmon Boycott.
If you’ve shopped at a big-box store over the lunch hour in Chilliwack you may have seen him in the past couple of years.
Gardner would be the one wearing a woven cedar hat and salmon t-shirt, passionately urging shoppers to purchase wild salmon over farmed open-net options.
He often makes little speech in the store parking lot. Or you might spot him drumming and singing, alongside other salmon warriors, to honour the cause from outside a big box store.
“My number one passion is protecting the wild salmon,” he says.
He’s become convinced, in part by the work of B.C. biologist Alexandra Morton, that open-net industrial fish farms need to be removed from the migratory routes of salmon in the Pacific ocean. A lot of it has to do with the impacts of feedlot waste, parasites like lice and salmon diseases, he says, pointing to research showing that farmed salmon from feedlots tends to have more toxins than wild fish.
“This is a people’s movement. I started it from Chilliwack but it is growing, and I hope one day there will be chapters across North America,” he says.
Gardener’s car as well as his hand drum, and a new line of t-shirts, all have the iconic salmon painted on them.
It’s not an accident. And it’s not an artistic statement.
Saving the wild salmon has become his singular focus. He’s fought for a range of causes in the past like recognizing the impacts of Indian Residential schools, and trying to revive the dying Halq’emeylem language. But this is different.
“The salmon are the very lifeblood of B.C.,” he explains.
That’s what he concentrates on when he’s not helping to put on a medicine wheel workshop or a monthly sweat lodge.
Protecting the salmon for him is a deeply spiritual quest. A sacred one even.
He got involved with other like-minded individuals, like those at Salmon Are Sacred, to raise awareness of the concern for wild salmon, especially after the Fraser River sockeye run suffered a steep decline in 2009 — a crash that spawned the federal Cohen Commission. Even though the next year 2010 saw record numbers returning, he still felt the need to take action.
He has come to the conclusion that so many foreign-owned, open-net fish farms in the Pacific ocean is like “playing Russian roulette” with the wild salmon resource, which is precious and irreplaceable, he says.
“No other part of the world has this amazing resource,” he says.
Born in Hope, B.C. Gardner’s family moved to Sept Isles, Quebec, where he was raised, after they moved there to support his dad’s career. After obtaining a BA from University of PEI in 1972, he went to work for various agencies across Canada, delivering programs and services from a distinctly aboriginal world view, toiling for provincial, federal, as well as the private sector and First Nations governments. He returned to Sto:lo territory in 1994, worked on reviving his traditional language, and has been here ever since.
These days Gardner lives off-reserve in his Chilliwack condo with his wife Fran, and is an elder and member of the Skwah First Nation. At 68 he’s semi retired, but still working as an Elder-in-Residence at both the University of the Fraser Valley and Nicola Valley Institute of Technology, sharing his knowledge of Stó:lo culture and traditions.
The value of wild fish is being overlooked, and that is the central problem, he figures.
People don’t always realize salmon is a “keystone” species that feeds so many other species and creatures down the line, like the whales, sea lions, wolves, bears, eagles and more.
“Losing it would be a terrible blow to First Nations people, who have a spiritual and cultural relationship to the salmon.”
The traditional name he was given is T’it’elem Spath, which means Singing Bear, and he’s been singing this song for years now.
“It’s an amazing gift to the world so you’d think the federal government would do everything in its power to protect it.
“On the contrary they have abdicated their responsibility entirely, at great peril to the fish.”
He says he strongly believes in the “people’s movement” as advocated by the late George Manuel of UBCIC and Chief Wayne Christian, and he still promotes this basic concept in his work.
The federal government, in failing to implement the recommendations in the wake of the Cohen Commission, such as removing fish farms from the paths of migrating salmon, have failed to protect salmon.
“The thing is if the government doesn’t do anything about this, we the people, have to rise up and do their jobs for them.”