Lina Azeez

Lina Azeez, Habitats Program Director

Farmers and First Nations in the Fraser Valley are disproportionately impacted by flooding. They don’t always see eye to eye, and often have conflicting values and priorities when it comes to managing the floodplain and flooding. In talking with leaders from both sides, it was clear we needed to create space to discuss shared values, foster better understanding and help identify common goals. We recently helped bring them together for a conversation about living with floods, learning from each other and building long term resilience. The meeting was organized with one purpose: bring together farmers and First Nations to help build relationships and find common ground. From there, we hope to find a way for both communities to build resilience in the floodplain.

The meeting was held last month at the Shxwá:y Village near Chilliwack and was organized by the Lower Fraser Floodplain Coalition (formerly the Build Back Better, Together Collaborative). The coalition is a group of organizations advocating for flood solutions that work with nature, to improve water quality and habitat for fish and wildlife, as well as calling for a more regional approach towards flood management, so no community gets left behind. As members of this collaborative, Watershed Watch organized this meeting with the support of Farmland Advantage and the Emergency Planning Secretariat. 

Due to a history of systemic racism, not all communities in the lower Fraser are protected by our current flood control infrastructure. Following colonization, lower Fraser Nations were pushed into reserves, right on the river’s edge, in the floodplains. Settler communities then built dikes and other flood infrastructure to keep any flood waters out but left First Nation reserves unprotected and vulnerable.

At the same time, these flood structures—pumps, gates and dikes—started to impact the ability for salmon to access their floodplain habitats. Juvenile salmon in particular are blocked as they try to seek refuge on in-river islands, side channels, tributaries and sloughs from flood waters but find barriers instead. Without access to these important habitats, juvenile fish are ill-prepared for their journey out to sea, and fewer survive as a result.

The agricultural community is also disproportionately impacted by floods. The most productive farmlands are found in floodplains, where yearly spring floods bring nutrients to fields. In our modern era, farms have been disconnected from the floodplains by dikes which protect properties from regularly being inundated with water. But living behind aging dikes comes with the threat of floods, putting farms, and increasingly expensive farming infrastructure, at risk.

With about 50 people in the room representing eight First Nation communities, farmers, farm associations and the Ministry of Agriculture, there was plenty to talk about. The energy in the Shxwá:y Village community hall was positive and respectful. Seeking common ground, Skway Councillor and respected Elder Eddie Gardner and Agassiz dairy farmer Detmar Schwichtenberg shared stories on long histories, multi-generational land stewardship and the importance of ensuring food security, be it through stewarding healthy salmon runs or growing crops, cattle and poultry.

Salmon conservation cannot happen in a bubble. It is part of a whole, a complex relationship between many needs and wants and values that must all be carefully understood and respected if we are to live in a healthy, cooperative community. The principles of the Coalition take this into account and with every project we support or every step we take towards regional floodplain governance these principles should be incorporated. The guiding principles are: sustainable and resilient communities, advancing reconciliation, thriving salmon runs, risk reduction in a changing climate and ensuring everyone is part of the solutions.

It was an honour and a total thrill to be part of this historic conversation at Shxwá:y Village, to listen, learn and ensure our work as a salmon conservation organization is continually informed by a variety of perspectives. We can stand up for the salmon in our waterways and push for strong, flood-resilient communities when everyone is heard and we can work as one.