Salmon are integral to who they are as a people.
That's the essence of what Shxwha:y Chief Robert Gladstone had to say at the Pilalt Fishery Rally on the steps of the Chilliwack Law Courts Tuesday morning.
The local chief was charged last March with one count of contravening the federal Fisheries Act by fishing for salmon, during a closed time.
"A year ago when this happened, I wasn't thinking of making a grandstand or a legal challenge."
Rather he was thinking about how as a boy he was taught by his elder all the ways and ceremonies of the "Indian people."
The lone salmon seized last spring by DFO, along with his gear, was destined for their sacred First Salmon ceremony, which Gladstone said he was taught to observe and revere by his grandmother.
"That salmon is the body of Christ to our people," said Gladstone.
He was taught it was a relationship that's existed for thousands of years, he said.
"We didn't want to break any laws, and we're not trying to break the rules. I just needed to make an old lady happy."
Following the wishes of the elders, "it's the rule of our society," Gladstone underlined.
He's ready for what awaits in the courtroom.
"I believe that they are trying to make an example of me, and if that's the case so be it. But I want it to be a good thing," Chief Gladstone said.
The upper courts have recognized repeatedly that aboriginal title was never extinguished in Canada, he noted.
"So I say respectfully to the court, I respect you, but you must also respect your own laws," he said.
Chief Gladstone was joined on the steps by a range of Sto:lo leaders and First Nations officials who riffed and railed on the indignity of being denied a single fish for ceremonial purposes.
"The right for us to fish is second only to conservation," said Gladstone. "We have a right to do our ceremonies."
Rally organizers were from the Pilalt tribe, which includes Cheam First Nation, along with Shxwha:y Village , Kwakwaapilt and Skwah First Nations.
Grand Chief Ken Malloway, one of the hereditary chiefs of the Ts’elxwéyeqw Tribe, president of First Nations Fisheries Council, and co-chair of Lower Fraser Fisheries Alliance, pointed out that all his work was "fishery-related."
"Department of Fisheries and Oceans should back off; they should drop this. If they had any sense they would drop it, but the Crown is pushing it," he told the crowd.
It is an affront watching recreational fishers continue to take salmon, while Sto:lo fishers are out of the river, he said.
"That's because there are 300,000 sport fishers and they vote," Malloway said. "That's why, meanwhile we are having to go without."
It's especially frustrating that the Sparrow decision of 1990 is still not being implemented. "Sparrow says if there's not enough fish for us, no one should be fishing."
He's concerned there's a plan to put Chief Gladstone in jail for fishing.
"We are fishers. Fish is not just a noun. It's not just food, it's a way of life. We fish therefore we are. Thank you," said.
Cheam elder June Quipp said as women they have stood up to DFO in the past, for the fish, which are their "lifeline" and worth fighting for.
"We're here to support Robert and (former Cheam Chief) Sid (Douglas) today," she said.
She pointed out that her 31-year-old granddaughter has been fishing on the river since she was only two.
"It's our lifeline that we are fishing for. It's our life," said Quipp.
"We enjoy fishing as much as those recreational fishers do. But they get more privileges than we do.
"But we have a right to be out there on the river."