cowichan river day
Cowichan Tzinquaw Dancers perform in front of a crowd marking the start to Quw'utsun Sta'lo' Skweyul (Cowichan River Day). Photo by Philip McLachlan/The Discourse
Cowichan Valley Vancouver Island

The river ‘is our health system’: Community gathers for Cowichan River Day

Health and history of the Cowichan River at the forefront of conversations.
Philip McLachlan September 30, 2021

A crowd begins to gather at the edge of the Quw’utsun Sta’lo’ (Cowichan River), bearing witness to a sight often unnoticed. It’s early in the morning on Sept. 25, and the warm sun is beginning to break through the trees. 

Oars split the surface of the water, propelling a rowboat out into the middle of the river, just upstream from the Black Bridge. There’s a net tied to the boat, with the other end held on shore. Lead weights drag it down to the bottom and it forms a half circle. A dozen people work to pull the net into shore, bringing with it about six large chinook salmon. 

Cowichan river hatchery
Staff members with the Cowichan River Hatchery work to catch chinook salmon from the river, near the Black Bridge, on the morning of Sept. 25. Photo by Philip McLachlan/The Discourse

Together they net some and put them into water tanks on trucks, free the others, and leave, bound for the Cowichan River Hatchery. There, eggs are collected and the fish are marked, before being released. This method of catching and releasing fish has been performed for years, and helps restore and maintain the local chinook population. The project is managed by Cowichan Tribes in partnership with Fisheries and Ocean Canada.

Cowichan river hatchery
Cowichan River Hatchery workers pull salmon from the river. Photo by Philip McLachlan/The Discourse

The timing was accidental, though this gathering of fish was a fitting beginning for Quw’utsun Sta’lo’ Skweyul (Cowichan River Day), a day to celebrate the river, its significance to the Cowichan Valley and its connection to the community. Cowichan Tribes and the Cowichan Stewardship Roundtable co-hosted the event, which previously took place in 2019 and 2017.

A large group of community members, local government, elders and biologists gathered by the river, surrounded by more than a dozen tents. It was a warm, fall day, and the smell of leaves and wood stoves filled the air.

Down by the water, children took turns in kayaks, while others took part in herbal medicine tours, heard from Elders and talked with experts at their stations. Some simply sat in the sun with their families and friends, eating bannock and smoked salmon. In the water, fishermen cast their lines and others lay floating on their backs, with eyes closed.  

Tzinquaw Dancers
Leo, the youngest of the Tzinquaw Dancers, performs for the crowd. Photo by Philip McLachLan/The Discourse

The Cowichan Tzinquaw Dancers performed several dances to start the day of learning and connection.

Elder John George was the speaker and master of ceremonies. He emphasized that concern for the river brought the people together, and that the number of people joining in concern for the river continues to grow.

Many Elders and elected officials, including MP Alistair MacGregor, MLA Sonia Furstenau and CVRD area director Ian Morrison, took a turn at the podium.

Several members of the Cowichan Tribes spoke about the plentiful supply of fish that used to be and the deep, clear water that ran even in summer time. 

Cowichan Elder Tousilum (Ron George) said the hatchery staff told him the river is looking healthy, healthier than last year, with more salmon returning to spawn. “Already, all of that is coming,” he said. 

“This is a man-made problem, but it’s going to take a man-made and women-made solution to fix what is happening around here,” said Qwulti’stunaat (Debra Toporowski), an elected councillor with Cowichan Tribes and the Municipality of North Cowichan.

“Respect where you are, respect where you’re at, educate everyone on how to take care of — just the little things, picking up your own garbage, … those little things add up to a lot.”

shannon waters
Dr. Shannon Waters speaks at Cowichan River Day. Photo by Philip McLachlan/The Discourse

Dr. Shannon Waters, Island Health’s medical officer of health for the Cowichan region, spoke about the significance of the river to community health.

“We’re having a new hospital built in Cowichan here soon, and that’s going to bring a lot of positive benefit to our community, but I think we also very much need to remember and acknowledge that the river, the trees, the earth — that is in fact our health system,” said Waters, a Hul’q’umi’num’ woman and member of the Stz’uminus First Nation. 

Through open conversations, the public learned about invasive species, traditional medicine, the local watershed, wildlife and stories of what the Cowichan River used to be. 

Elder Della Rice-Sylvester leads a plant medicine walk. Photo by Philip McLachLan/TheDiscourse

Many individuals and groups set up booths at the event and offered education, activities and more. Elders led workshops on drum making, medicinal plants and other traditional skills. The organizations present included WildSafe BC, the B.C. Wildlife Federation, the Canadian Freshwater Alliance, the Somenos Marsh Wildlife Society, Catalyst (Crofton Mill), the Cowichan Land Trust, Mosaic Forest Management, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, the Salish Sea Science Program, Pacific Northwest Raptors and more.

Tom Rutherford and Tim Kulchyski net fish from the river. Photo by Philip McLachlan/The Discourse

Cowichan Watershed Board executive director Tom Rutherford and Cowichan Tribes biologist Tim Kulchyski spent time in the water collecting species and educating the public on their significance to the local ecosystem.

A three-spined stickleback fish. Photo by Philip McLachlan/The Discourse

Since Rutherford became involved in the local watershed decades ago, he says he has seen the interest and collaboration surrounding the river grow tremendously, something which encourages him. 

“All these individuals and organizations that have an interest (in the river) are doing a better and better job of communicating with each other, and working together.”