A smiling Sam Douglas is pictured on the cover of ‘Hielamacha – A Tribute,’ a small book produced after his death. Douglas’s beloved boat (pictured) was pulled from the Fraser River Wednesday afternoon by his nephew – 17 year after the former chief went missing.

A smiling Sam Douglas is pictured on the cover of ‘Hielamacha – A Tribute,’ a small book produced after his death. Douglas’s beloved boat (pictured) was pulled from the Fraser River Wednesday afternoon by his nephew – 17 year after the former chief went missing.

Boat of missing B.C. chief found in river, 17 years after presumed death

Sam Douglas drowned nearly two decades ago on the river he loved

Over 17 years after former Stó:lō Nation Grand Chief Sam Douglas went missing while fishing the Fraser River, his boat has been discovered partially submerged just kilometres west of from Cheam Indian Band, where his family lives to this day.

On Wednesday afternoon, Douglas’s nephew, Rick Quipp – who had also been fishing on the Fraser the same day his uncle is presumed to have drowned – discovered his uncle’s boat on the north side of the channel, three to four kilometres downstream from the Agassiz Rosedale Bridge.

Sam Douglas’s family recognized his boat immediately, but any doubt was erased by the name etched into its side.

It was nearly two decades ago, in late May 2001, when 60-year-old Douglas took his small boat, his name etched onto its side, out on the river to fish for salmon, just like his ancestors had done for thousands of years and he himself had done his entire life.

It was a beautiful, sunny morning when he launched his boat from Cheam beach, went across the river and set his net out near the bridge.

But Sam Douglas never returned, and weeks of exhaustive searching brought no clues or peace of mind to his family and friends. In fact, there was no sign of Douglas or his boat until June 7, 2018.

Warrior on the Water

Douglas, known to many as ‘Hielamacha’ – Warrior on the Water – was a highly respected leader, acting as chief of Cheam First Nation from 1969 to 1992, and as a Stó:lō Grand Chief from 1993 until his death.

He was widely known across the region for his activism surrounding First Nations’ fishing rights – he often made headlines for pushing back against restrictive laws impinging the rights of Stó:lō people, whose traditional economy thrived on the catching and selling of Fraser River salmon.

He fought tirelessly, not only against policy that thwarted fishing access for his people, but against the ignorance churned by his unyielding convictions.

“The Cheam have long been leaders in the struggle to assert native fishing and land rights in B.C.,” he told the Chilliwack Progress in 2000. “We know who we are and we know what we own.”

The government – through the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) – slapped huge restrictions on the number of salmon First Nations people were allowed to catch for commercial use – drawing on antiquated policies from the 1888 Fisheries Act that limited Indigenous fisherman to a ‘food fishery’ for ceremonial and food purposes only.

In 2000, Douglas told the Chilliwack Progress that the B.C. Cabinet’s approval of protected areas in the Fraser River was “the final straw.”

“The government has failed to protect what little land the Cheam have left,” he said. “The Sto:lo are traditional fishermen and when agreements on that resource are made somebody’s going to suffer to a certain extent.”

It wasn’t until the late 1990s that Douglas, along with other Stó:lō Chiefs, persuaded the federal government to sign agreements allowing for the open sale of salmon harvested in the Stó:lō fishery – an enormous feat after the act had been outlawed over a century earlier.

Sam Douglas (far left) was Chief of Cheam for over two decades, and Grand Chief of Stó:lō Nation from 1993 until his death in 2001. Newspaper archives from the last 50 years detail his activism for Stó:lō fishing rights, as well as social, political and economic justice.

Douglas may have been known regionally for his role in Fraser River fishing disputes near the end of the 20th century, but the chief was a fearless advocate across the board, pushing for control over child welfare, health and traditional government in the early 90s and fighting tirelessly for social, economic and political justice for First Nations people in the area.

Douglas was critical of the media’s coverage of his actions and Stó:lō people in general, writing to the Progress in 1986 that, in his opinion, the paper’s editorial policy reported only on Indian people [sic] “when it involved confrontation and discord.”

“You have chosen to ignore the stories that have been positive in their approach to what native Indians are doing to enhance salmon stocks and their habitats, or how we, as Indian people, would like to have joint management in the river fisheries.”

“The issue is not as you see it – breaking the law,” he wrote.

“The issue is the allocation of fish to the commercial fishermen at the expense of the Indian fishery. The issue is the continual erosion of our aboriginal right to fish. The issue is the grim determination of the federal government to pursue a policy of Indian economic genocide.”

A lasting legend

On June 12, 2001, a day-long tribute to Douglas was held at Cheam Beach near the Agassiz Rosedale bridge. About 700 to 800 people – family, friends and officials from provincial, federal and First Nations governments – attended the ceremony to share memories of the revered leader.

Stó:lō elder Joe Aleck opened the tribute with prayer, mourning the loss of a man he called a ‘great leader’ and “a person who lived by the river and was taken by the river.”

A polished granite memorial once stood at Cheam Beach in permanent tribute to Douglas, but his family since removed it to protect it from vandalism and the elements.

Ruth Nicol’s two-part column in the Progress in 2001 says settlers knew Douglas as a radical, “but his people knew him as a pragmatist, visionary, father, brother, grandfather, friend and mentor.”

When Douglas’s family pulled his boat from the rushing current of the Fraser on Wednesday afternoon, there was a a peculiar, innate sense that a man – who had spent much of his life leading and fighting for his people – was sending a message to his loved ones, 17 years after he had been lost to the river he loved.

It may be best said in a poem by Gordon Mohs, printed in Hielamacha – A Tribute and translated from Halq’eméylem:

“Brother, gentleman, leader, Indian, warrior, spirit of the bear, that was Sam Douglas.”

“He was my friend, His spirit is with the river. With great respect, thank you Sam. It is done.”

Just Posted

Police tape is shown in Toronto Tuesday, May 2, 2017. Statistics Canada says the country's crime rate ticked up again in 2018, for a fourth year in a row, though it was still lower than it was a decade ago. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graeme Roy
CRIME STOPPERS: ‘Most wanted’ for the week of June 13

Crime Stoppers’ weekly list based on information provided by police investigators

Madalyn Clempson, 18, of Chilliwack sings ‘Hiney Yamin Ba-im.’ She won the Intermediate Vocal Canadian Music award at the Performing Arts BC Virtual Provincial Festival. (YouTube)
Chilliwack youth bring home awards from provincial performing arts festival

Chilliwack’s 18-year-old Madalyn Clempson ‘a bit stunned’ to have won Intermediate Vocal Canadian Music

These three kittens, seen here on Thursday, June 10, 2021, are just some of many up for adoption at the Chilliwack SPCA. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress)
VIDEO: Find Me My Furever Home – Three kittens at the Chilliwack SPCA

Kittens were in ‘rough shape’ when they came into the Chilliwack SPCA, now ready for adoption

Jacqueline Pearce and Jean-Pierre Antonio received the BC Historical Federation Best Article Award on Saturday for their story about translating haiku written in the Tashme internment camp.
Article chronicling haiku in Japanese internment camp near Hope wins award

Tashme Haiku Club’s work was preserved and recently translated, authors write

Two-year-old Ivy McLeod laughs while playing with Lucky the puppy outside their Chilliwack home on Thursday, June 10, 2021. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress)
VIDEO: Chilliwack family finds ‘perfect’ puppy with limb difference for 2-year-old Ivy

Ivy has special bond with Lucky the puppy who was also born with limb difference

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau participates in a plenary session at the G7 Summit in Carbis Bay, England on Friday June 11, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Canada donating 13M surplus COVID-19 vaccine doses to poor countries

Trudeau says the government will pay for 87 million shots to be distributed to poor countries

Premier John Horgan speaks as provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, right, and health minister Adrian Dix look on during a press conference to update on the province’s fall pandemic preparedness plan during a press conference from the press theatre at Legislature in Victoria, Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
B.C. officials to provide details on Step 2 of COVID reopening plan Monday

Step 2 could allow for larger gatherings and a resumption of recreational travel

Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller is seen during a news conference, Wednesday May 19, 2021 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Indigenous child-welfare battle heads to court despite calls for Ottawa to drop cases

Feds are poised to argue against two Canadian Human Rights Tribunal rulings

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

The Great Ogopogo Bathtub Race has been held in Summerland as a fundraising event. Do you know which Canadian city introduced this sport? (Black Press file photo)
QUIZ: A summer’s day at the water

How much do you know about boats, lakes and water?

A million-dollar ticket was sold to an individual in Vernon from the Lotto Max draw Friday, June 11, 2021. (Photo courtesy of BCLC)
Lottery ticket worth $1 million sold in Vernon

One lucky individual holds one of 20 tickets worth $1 million from Friday’s Lotto Max draw

“65 years, I’ve carried the stories in my mind and live it every day,” says Jack Kruger. (Athena Bonneau)
‘Maybe this time they will listen’: Survivor shares stories from B.C. residential school

Jack Kruger, living in Syilx territory, wasn’t surprised by news of 215 children’s remains found on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School

A logging truck carries its load down the Elaho Valley near in Squamish, B.C. in this file photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chuck Stoody
Squamish Nation calls for old-growth logging moratorium in its territory

The nation says 44% of old-growth forests in its 6,900-square kilometre territory are protected while the rest remain at risk

Most Read