The Salmon People
June 14, 2016
Review By Kenneth Campbell
When The Salmon People was first published in 1967, commercial salmon fishing still sustained many coastal communities, although as Hugh McKervill pointed out then, there were plenty of signs that the resource was threatened. In both the 1967 and subsequent 1992 Whitecap editions, McKervill ended with tempered optimism: “So long as there are fish surging in the sea there will be salmon people […] and the salmon will probably come forever … if man does not destroy them” (1967:187). Nearly fifty years later, his conclusions are much more dire.
The Salmon People are those whose lives were or are deeply involved with the valuable resource that is the Pacific salmon, including Indigenous communities, commercial fishers and canners, and — new to this edition — sports fishers. McKervill tells the history of the commercial fishing and canning industry in an engaging style largely through stories of some of the individuals involved. He also recounts some significant events such as the Hell’s Gate slide disaster of 1914, and details how the resource has been seriously impacted by human activity. This is especially evident in the new chapter “Atlantic Invasion,” which critically examines fish farming, and the updated final chapter, replacing optimism with the forbidding words: “Weep for the once illustrious Pacific salmon. Weep for the Salmon People” (243).
One of the stated goals of the The Salmon People is to highlight the racist nature of much of BC commercial fishing history, particularly that faced by Indigenous, Japanese, and Chinese workers. However, some of the language and terminology used is at odds with this goal.
“Indian” used in the first two editions has been replaced; unfortunately the result is a muddle of terminology, as no consistent usage has been applied. “Native” is most widely used, with “Aboriginal” appearing more in later chapters. “First Nations” and “Indigenous” are used less frequently. Interestingly, “white man” has been substituted with “Industrial Man.” The attempt to use currently accepted names of some First Nations is not always successful, employing, for example, the dated Niska and Nootka, rather than Nisga’a and Nuu-chah-nulth.
Some stereotypical language from 1967 remains, such as “Native children dashing helter-skelter with green running noses [and] clusters of Chinese jabbering excitedly” (66). But a new statement in this version is more disturbing. Describing how Indigenous traditional fisheries were in balance with the ecosystem, McKervill asserts that: “This was not due to any sort of racially determined superior sense of conservation. Their low impact on the salmon runs was in large measure due to the fact that their population was relatively limited, and their fishing techniques were primitive” (201). However, it is widely acknowledged that diverse Indigenous harvesting methods, including fishing, employed sophisticated technologies using the available resources (see for example Greene et al. 2015.), and that living in balance with the environment is central to Indigenous world views (see Turner et al. 2000 and Menzies and Butler 2007).
The book includes limited footnotes and a bibliography. Only a few references are more recent than 1967. It lacks an index and would have benefited from maps. Although the writing does a good job of evoking a different time and place, some photographs would also have been welcome.
Despite these shortcomings, The Salmon People still holds some merit after nearly fifty years. It provides a colourful overview of the salmon fishing industry, especially the unique stories of some of the people involved, often found nowhere else. It also includes a passionate argument against fish farming and an examination of how we have seriously endangered the Pacific salmon. It is just unfortunate that there wasn’t a stronger editorial hand to sensitively bring it fully into the twenty-first century.
Greene, Nancy A., David C. McGee, Roderick J. Heitzmann. 2015. “The Comox Harbour Fish Trap Complex: A Large-Scale, Technologically Sophisticated Intertidal Fishery from British Columbia.” Canadian Journal of Archaeology. 39, 2: 161-212.
Menzies, Charles and Caroline F. Butler. 2007. “Returning to Selective Fishing through Indigenous Fisheries Knowledge: The Example of K’moda, Gitxaala Territory.” American Indian Quarterly. 33, 3: 441-464.
Turner, Nancy J., Marianne Boelscher Ignace, Ronald Ignace. 2000. “Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Wisdom of Aboriginal Peoples in British Columbia.” Ecological Applications 10, 5: 1275-1287.
The Salmon People
Vancouver: Whitecap Books, 2015. 256 pp. $19.95. paper (First published in Sidney by Gray’s Publishing, 1967, and reprinted in Vancouver by Whitecap Books, 1992)