Fern Gabriel leads a small, attentive group to an interpretive sign on Glover Road, where she then tells the story of the sturgeon during a Kwantlen Walking Tour on Aug. 11.

Fern Gabriel leads a small, attentive group to an interpretive sign on Glover Road, where she then tells the story of the sturgeon during a Kwantlen Walking Tour on Aug. 11.

Kwantlen Walking Tours a ‘powerful healing journey’

Seyem’ Qwantlen Business Group's free summer walking tours share Kwantlen's history and culture in Fort Langley

There was a time when the bounty of the Fraser River was so great, the people of the Kwantlen First Nation could “walk on the backs of salmon.”

And the ooligan — also known as eulachon fish — would travel in groups so large, the shimmering of their scales could be seen from the surrounding hilltops, causing even orcas and seals to come up river.

“Once upon a time, when ooligan was prepared for the people, it was put in front of you, and that would be a feed. It could be 20 to 40 pieces for maybe the six of you,” said Fern Gabriel, a member of the Kwantlen First Nation.

“They were caught in huge abundance, all people had to do was scoop a net inside the river and pull out a whole bunch.”

But this year, only 44 pounds of salmon were caught, which — split between 24 First Nations communities — works out to maybe one fish per person, Gabriel said.

And the ooligan, now an endangered species, are allocated to First Nations fishermen in very small numbers.

That’s why Gabriel, along with the Seyem’ Qwantlen Business Group, are doing their part to educate the community on the importance of this resource through the Kwantlen Walking Tours.

The free tours, running Thursday nights during August and early September, expose visitors to some of the oldest stories known, as they walk through picturesque Fort Langley from the Jacob Haldi Bridge to Sqwalets Channel and back.

For the third summer in a row, Gabriel, who has spent a lifetime teaching her culture to students in schools, has been leading the tours.

She is accompanied by vocalist Lisa Thomas (pictured left), as the stories of the salmon, the ooligan, the eagle and the sturgeon are brought to life through traditional song and Gabriel’s animated voice.

“Remembering the past, remembering the history that belongs to the land is really important,” Gabriel said.

“I like to share these stories because — whether they’re true or not — they’re inspirational.

“They give hope. And it reminds people to check in at the end of the day … with themselves.”

Beyond the environmental education, the stories also share a unique insight into Coast Salish traditions that go back 10,000 years.

The Kwantlen people were known as the “runners and tireless hunters,” feeding off of elk, deer, beaver, muskrat, duck, geese, grouse — and of course — fish.

Gabriel said in many First Nation communities the ancestral stories often match up with major historical events — something she is very proud of.

“The story I always remember being told about and reading about is the story of the earthquake and tsunami that took place back in the 1700s,” Gabriel said.

“And it was Mouse that told the people, told the kids, ‘Get to higher ground. The Earth is going to change, the Earth is going to hurt you.’

“The children ran and told the people, and the people who listened made it to higher ground. The people who did not listen to Mouse, they said it looked like a great big hand … slapped down on the land, and that was the water, that was the tsunami from the aftershocks.

“And those oral stories coincide with the Japanese records … (When some people say) our people don’t have these records, well they did. It’s done through collective memory.”

Aboriginal tourism is a relatively new direction for the business group, but one that Gabriel says has brought great pleasure to both herself, and to those she’s toured.

“I enjoy telling the stories, I enjoy the peacefulness that people feel after,” she said.

“All that we do here, all that we do is prayer. It’s prayer, and it’s reminding you the importance of the resources in the water — the ooligan, the Salish sucker, the coho, the sturgeon, and now the salmon.

“So it’s a reminder to people that ‘Hey, stewardship is everybody’s responsibility.’ There’s enough for everybody out here, but if people are going to take more than what they need, it’s going to affect us all.”

The tours also allow some of the younger people in the Kwantlen community to come out of their shells, Gabriel added. Among them is her niece, Elinor Atkins, who will be leading her own walking tours next year.

Atkins has been heavily involved in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and is heading to the University of Victoria in September to pursue a degree in history and indigenous studies.

“I was lucky enough to grow up immersed in my culture, but some of my ancestors in residential schools were not,” Atkins said.

“It’s weird to think that in our town, there are people that don’t know the culture of the people that have been here for so long. It’s important to share these stories because they help break down stereotypes.”

Gabriel shares the same sentiment.

“This is reconciliation,” she said.

“I always say I’ve been reconciling all my life. I remember trying to share stories when I was younger, and I literally would hear from people I grew up with, ‘I don’t want to hear that Indian sh**.’ And that was just the way people were.

“Now that we’ve become more politically correct, people are not like that. I grew up in a time when it wasn’t cool to be Indian — that’s why I like to do this (the walking tours).

“And I want people to know that it’s a healing journey for me, too. It’s a really powerful healing journey. I’m not trying to save people, I’m trying to empower them.”

The remaining walking tours run Aug. 18 at 7 p.m., Aug. 25 at 6:30 and 7:30 p.m., Sept. 1 at 6:30 and 7:30 p.m., and Sept. 5 at 6:30 and 7:30 p.m.

The tours meet in front of Lelem’ Arts & Cultural Café, 100-23285 Billy Brown Rd.

For more information, visit coastsalishtourism.ca.