Indigenous leaders and supporters gather in response to Trans Mountain’s plans to begin drilling under the Fraser river

Cottonwood seed blew through the sky like snow and the river ran swiftly behind us as Secwépemc elder Minnie Kenoras offered sage smudging to people arriving at the banks of the Fraser.

On May 29, we gathered a stone’s throw away from the site where Trans Mountain is planning to drill a borehole 1.2 metres wide under the largest salmon river in the country. We came together to witness and share in an Indigenous-led ceremony to protect all that is threatened by Trans Mountain’s drills, to build relationships of solidarity, to hold space for grief and anger, and to strengthen our spirits and our resolve for the fights ahead.

The ceremony began with drumming, as elders and leaders from many Nations gathered around a sacred fire. Chief Ed Hall of the Kwikwetlem First Nation welcomed us to the territory, and led a prayer and moment of silence for the 215 lost children and everyone who continues to suffer from the legacy of residential schools and ongoing colonial violence.

Kukpi7 Judy Wilson, chief of the Neskonlith community in Secwépemc territory and Secretary-Treasurer of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, described the intentions of our gathering like this:

“We are coming together in ceremony to protect the Fraser waterways, called Stó:lō in the Halq’eméylem language. Just as water is life, wild salmon is also life for our Nations and the bedrock of the coastal ecosystem. Canada continues to try to build this pipeline without the consent of many Indigenous communities, risking the salmon, the whales and the very foundations of Indigenous life. We need to protect the water, protect the salmon, protect the wild Earth. It’s not just Indigenous people who have the inherent responsibility, it’s each and everyone one of us who has that responsibility.”

Mark Point, chief of the Skowkale First Nation in Stó:lō territory, offered a canoe song, and explained the importance of the river to his people:

“Stó:lō are ‘the river people.’ This waterway and the life it sustains are at the heart of our culture, and threats to the river’s health and to our fishing grounds are threats to the wellbeing of our people. Our ceremony today is part of our sacred responsibility to ourselves, our ancestors and our descendants to defend these lands and waters.”

After a song led by Deborah Baker of the Squamish Nation, Kukpi7 Judy Wilson and her family, led by matriarch Minnie Kenoras, guided us through the water ceremony. They mixed water scooped up that morning from the Fraser river with water that had been collected from lakes, rivers and streams from across Turtle Island and around the world — water that had been prayed over and was a part of many ceremonies before that day’s — and offered those present the chance to bless themselves with the water.

Minnie said: “I thank you for being with this water because it’s so precious. Today, talk about it when you go home, tell another person about it, let them know what we’re doing, because this is important to teach our younger children, our families, to strengthen our ties and everything we do each day. Mother Earth expects us to do this. Mother Earth expects us to stand up and be strong. Mother Earth wants us to help, we have to walk in the footsteps of our ancestors. Be very proud of who you are. You are people together today, you’re making a stand. You’re making a stand for each and every one of them. I’m so proud to be standing here among you.”

Then we opened the microphone for stories, songs, information and inspiration. We held space for folks to share heartbreaking words about their personal and family experiences with residential schools and the Sixties Scoop, and offer reflections as Indigenous youth on the frontlines at Tiny House Warriors and Fairy Creek.

We heard the latest from land defenders and hummingbird finders resisting Trans Mountain construction in Coast Salish territory, and how to get involved. We learned about the vital importance of the Fraser and the life it supports, the catastrophic threat of an oil spill, and the ecosystems that are at risk in Colony Farm, the public park that Trans Mountain is commandeering to build its drill site.

To close the ceremony, elder Minnie invited participants to cleanse themselves with cedar and put the boughs into the sacred fire. She explained that the cedar is for healing, building strength for the fight ahead, and “helping you become the person you are”.

Roxanne Charles of the Semiahmoo First Nation reminded us “how important ceremony is in how we understand our relationship to the land, and our responsibilities, and how we feel. We navigate by a place of feeling rather than a place of analytical thinking. Settler community has a hard time understanding intangible things. Our way of life is very tied to those intangible things. We feel them in our being, they are part of us. The water, the land, the trees, they are all a part of us, and have nurtured us for a very long time.”

More than a hundred people joined us for the ceremony, and I’m sure each person experienced it differently than the next. Speaking for myself, I felt that we had been offered a gift: to witness and share in something so sacred and powerful, especially given the heaviness and trauma of the moment.

My invitation to those who were present was to find a way to honour that gift, and I extend the same invitation to you as you read this today: educate yourself on B.C.’s colonial history and the ongoing violence perpetrated against Indigenous people. Show up for Indigenous folks on the frontlines of fights against resource extraction on stolen land, and for justice and human rights. Step out of your comfort zone and step up your game in this crucial chapter of the long battle to stop Trans Mountain. I’ve offered a few ideas for how to do that below.

Our deepest thanks to Kukpi7 Judy and her family, all the elders and community leaders who took part in the ceremony, all the speakers who shared their stories and inspiration, and everyone who showed up. It was a much-needed afternoon of connection to each other and to the land and water, and I hope everyone came away feeling re-energized for the work ahead.

See more photos from the water ceremony
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