Salmon and Christianity

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This is the fifth post in a series featuring short descriptions of papers and panels that will be presented at the Canadian Historical Association’s annual meeting being held at the University of British Columbia June 3-5.

Salmon and Christianity might seem unlikely bedfellows, but the beauty of the Canadian Historical Association’s annual conference is that it creates opportunities to bring together – and into conversation – research that shares important connections and productive differences. This panel engages important debates about the ways that settler colonialism shapes how Indigenous people engage, and continue to engage, with the changes that came with the colonization of their lands, waters, and spiritualities. Both papers share a broad geographical focus centred on the Pacific Northwest and seek to use historical research on the return of the Tla’amin food fishery in 2018 and the missionary life of a British priest to identify ways settler people can, and need, to address the historical legacies and ongoing processes of colonialism in Canada.

Thanks to their close observations and interactions with Indigenous peoples, heroic self-promotion, and the huge legacy of documents, images, and recordings they created, missionaries have long been a subject of fascination for historians, faith communities, and the public. Research since the late 20th century has revealed in careful detail the ways missionaries and their work promoted and facilitated colonization of Indigenous peoples and lands (and in some cases, the ways missionaries attempted to resist some of these efforts). Because of the work of survivors and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, for many Canadians, the most well-known example of this is the role missionaries and clergy played in running the Indian Residential Schools and the abuse of children that became an undeniable feature of these institutions. So, in this difficult context, is there still value in studying missionary histories? And, could a close examination of how missionaries in Canada related to settler colonisation reveal possibilities for creative decolonial practices in the present?

In her paper, Emma Battell Lowman attempts an answer to these questions by examining her long ‘relationship’ with Stanley Eaton Higgs (1904-1983), an Anglican missionary to British Columbia from 1928 until his departure to serve as a padre with the Canadian Forces in WWII. Emma has been seeking to understand Stanley’s missionary history for almost a decade through his writings, the traces of his life in archives in the UK and Canada, and a memorable train journey across the continent that forms the narrative focus of the paper. At the 2019 CHA, Emma is working to find out what approaching this life history through the analytical possibilities of settler colonial studies could tell Canadians about challenging settler colonialism in the present. At its heart, this paper isn’t about addressing Indigenous issues, but about how addressing settler colonialism at an individual level might help lead towards the (re)establishment of just relationships between Indigenous and Settler peoples on the land today.

Coast Salish fishers have fed their families by harvested fish and shellfish in the Northern waters of the Salish Sea since time immemorial. Indigenous fisheries on the Northwest Coast were designed to be sustainable – cultural protocols and local knowledge ensured fisheries were maintained through enforcing exclusive kinship-based fishing zones, and through total stock management by enforcing cultural bans on fishing for set periods of time. Fishing weirs built across streams and rivers allowed Coast Salish fishers to harvest ample fish for the winter season, while also ensuring enough fish reached the upriver spawning grounds to propagate and guarantee future salmon runs.

Once settlers began to compete with Indigenous people for fish, however, Coast Salish methods of fishing began to be seen as destructive, unsustainable, and wasteful. Many white fishers condemned Coast Salish fisheries and blamed them for the failing fish stocks in the early 20th century. Despite Indigenous people being legally entitled to “fish as formerly” at their accustomed fishing sites, and despite British Columbia’s Indian Reserves boundaries being designed on fish, not farms, to feed Coast Salish people, Coast Salish communities became unable to feed their families using the same resources their ancestors had for centuries.

In his paper, Colin Osmond explores the return of the Food Fishery in Tla’amin territory after the signing of the momentous Final Agreement with the Canadian and British Columbian Governments in 2016. By contrasting the destruction of a fishing weir on Sliammon Creek in 1925 with the return of the fishery nearly a century later, Osmond seeks to show Tla’amin agency and determination in a troubling history that resulted in arrests, fines, jailtime, and nearly erupted into an open conflict on the Northern Salish Sea. Osmond, who collaborates with the Tla’amin in Community Engaged Scholarship, argues that by examining the history of the food fishery we can explore Coast Salish history at one of the most fundamental levels- food- to gain better perspective on Indigenous land and marine rights, and treaty making, in 20th and 21st century Canada.

This event will be held on Monday June 3 at 1:30 p.m. For more details about the CHA’s annual meeting consult the program here. If you would like to contribute a post to this series, please contact Tom Peace (

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