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SFU education students and First Nations collaborate to help Fraser River salmon

September 19, 2019
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A class of SFU graduate students initiated a pro-active move this summer to improve the Fraser River’s habitat for salmon. They worked with First Nations, school students, and community groups to plant 1,000 trees and indigenous plants along local creeks.

Their goal? To shade and cool the water that runs into the Fraser River, which is in danger of becoming too warm for salmon to survive. Already, this summer’s commercial fishing season has proven to be the worst in five decades, and the salmon fishery never did open.  

The SFU students initiated their river-cooling project in response to what they learned from First Nations elders and environmental experts during a unique, two-year master of education program in curriculum and instruction.  

It is the first SFU MEd program focusing on place-conscious and nature-based teaching practices, in which students learn with, on and from the land. The students took all of their classes off-campus in natural settings that included learning from First Nations elders on q?íc??y? (Katzie) and q??a:n????n? (Kwantlen) lands.  

The elders taught them about the land and indigenous ways of knowing, and shared their concerns that the salmon may be facing extinction.

“The q?íc??y? people are the sockeye people,” says education professor Cher Hill, who led the program. “The salmon are their brothers. They need to help their family and preserve their way of life—they’ve sustained their community on sockeye since time immemorial. That sat heavy on our hearts in the class cohort.”  

She says the students wanted to learn from and give back to the nations, but didn’t want a colonial exchange in which the elders delivered knowledge in exchange for an SFU cheque.  

“They wanted a different kind of exchange,” says Hill, who applied for an SFU Community Engagement Grant so they could embark on a creek restoration project in collaboration with q?íc??y? First Nations and other community partners.

“We wanted to give back to the land, and connect to the land,” says teacher and student Nicole McKenzie. She says one of the most important lessons she learned from the q?íc??y? during the program was that just one act can have a significant negative, or positive, impact on the land.   

For the project, Hill and Rick Bailey, the q?íc??y? counsellor of fishing and hunting, worked with McKenzie and others in the cohort to create and hold 10 community outreach events. During these events they explained the salmon’s plight and organized creek clean-up, planting and restoration work.  

Their events attracted more than 500 participants and Hill says there are plans to continue the project this fall, even though the students have completed their degrees. 

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