The Big Bar landslide prevented migrating #PacificSalmon from reaching their spawning grounds in the Upper Fraser River in British Columbia. The emergency response saw diverse state, non-state & #Indigenous groups to work together on stewardship planning for salmon recovery.
The Big Bar Landslide: Participatory salmon recovery response offers lessons in co-governance for British Columbia watersheds
Problems and Purpose
In June of 2019, the Big Bar landslide was discovered in the Fraser River passage north of Lillooet British Columbia, where a slide-induced tidal wave had blocked “virtually all of the natural migration of the Fraser sockeye” (The Narwhal, 2020). The landslide compounded existing threats to Fraser River Salmon populations (a keystone species which have been steadily in decline in British Columbia for decades) that face multiple overlapping threats ranging from commercial overfishing, aquaculture permitting and the criminalization of Indigenous fisheries to climate change and habitat loss (Government of Canada, Species at Risk Act and Pacific Salmon, 2021).
“Huge pieces of rock and substantial debris sheared off from a 125-metre cliff and crashed into the river, creating a five-metre waterfall. Further analysis confirmed that approximately 110,000 cubic metres (m3) of debris fell into the river. This barrier prevented migrating Pacific Fraser salmon from moving beyond the landslide to reach their spawning grounds, thus impacting the reproductive cycle of several key Upper Fraser salmon populations.” - Government of Canada Website, Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Big Bar landslide response summary, 2019
The blocked passage caused by the landslide presented both immediate threats to the seasonal Sockeye run, along with the socio-cultural challenges and technical unknowns that come with creating sustainable, long-term solutions to salmon population decline. Saving migrating salmon in both the near and long-term offers a range of cyclically rewarding benefits – and their immediate and long-term recovery is in the interest of multiple stakeholders, and especially important to salmon-reliant First Nations communities in both Upper and Lower Fraser River watersheds.
With these challenges, the landslide also presented opportunities for co-managed, participatory planning, along with a collaborative design process. The immediate planning response offered lessons for more long-term solutions to the salmon crisis and at different stages, would tie in modern technological fishway solutions with Indigenous fisheries governance for lessons in watershed management in British Columbia’s many overlapping jurisdictions - and beyond.
Background History and Context; Indigenous fisheries experts play key role in crisis response
“Without immediate environmental remediation, many salmon stocks native to the upper Fraser River may become extinct. These impacts could result in economic losses throughout British Columbia and pose risks to the food security and culture of many First Nations communities.” (National Observer, 2019)
Wild pacific salmon plays an important role in local Indigenous culture and diet, as explained by Tl’etinqox Chief Joe Alphonse “A lot of our people live way under what the Canadian society would consider the poverty line, but a lot of our people are able to do that because they can still obtain a lot of their sustenance through hunting and fishing” (The Globe and Mail - N/A, 2019). However, salmon also has wide-ranging economic windfalls for the non-indigenous population of British Columbia as well, with many jobs linked to commercial fisheries, tourism and sport fishing. Because of historical lopsidedness in the Federal Government’s fisheries policies, there remains considerable doubt about whether the response would have had such strong financial backing if the only groups impacted by a near total loss of salmon stocks were Indigenous Nations.
Salmon fisheries not only provide food and sustenance for First Nations across the country, but First Nations’ fisheries are inextricably linked to Indigenous legal orders along Fraser River watersheds. Indigenous fishers are the salmon experts across Turtle Island and have been practicing sustainable fisheries in connected waterways since time immemorial. For many Indigenous fishing communities living in what is now known as British Columbia, fishing practices such as dry racks, fishwheels, smolt monitoring, smoking, and preserving are not only technologically sophisticated ways of maintaining a fish-rich diet, but provide vital relationships to the connected natural systems that salmon, and all life, depend on.
Canada’s Federal government, along with Fisheries and Oceans Canada's (DFO) have been criticized by Fraser River Indigenous communities for consistently failing to integrate Indigenous stewardship principles in their salmon conservation strategies, despite repeated calls from First Nation’s fisheries experts over the years. From coast to coast, Indigenous communities have pointed to inadequate consultation processes, unfair distribution of fishing licences and government failure to recognize Indigenous rights as being instrumental to the drop in salmon populations (National Observer, 2021). The joint Big Bar landslide response offered an opportunity for government to come to the table to work alongside Indigenous partners, in good faith and on an issue of mutual concern.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
Emergency response operations were jointly organized by three levels of government (First Nations, Federal, and Provincial) and supported by other agencies, stakeholder groups, and geotechnical and hydrological experts to protect the salmon passageway. The key stakeholders included the High Bar First Nation, Stswecem’c Xgat’tem First Nation, Fraser Salmon Management Council, Upper Fraser Fisheries Conservation Alliance, Fraser River Aboriginal Fisheries Secretariat, Public Service and Procurements Canada (PSPC), Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), and BC’s Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations & Rural Development (FLNRORD).
This planning process was primarily funded by the federal government with support from Procurement Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC) who provided “procurement and project management support to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) for urgent remediation work at the site of the landslide, which is preventing salmon stocks from reaching their spawning grounds.” (Big Bar landslide remediation: Committee of the Whole—July 8, 2020 - PSPC) In addition to the initial contract awarded to Peter Kiewit Sons ULC for their pneumatic WHOOSHH fish cannon, Fisheries and Oceans Canada deployed (and continues to invest) significant financing for remediation, research, development, rock blasting, truck and transport logistics, the set-up and maintenance of a working camp and labour. In 2020, the government offered a $176.3 million contract for a co-designed, permanent fishway in Big Bar as a sustainable long-term solution for fish passage (Government of Canada, 2020).
Participant Recruitment and Selection
In June 2019 after Fisheries and Ocean Canada was notified of the landslide, it necessitated the creation of an Incident Command Post (ICP) to lead the remediation response which included “all levels of government, First Nations, provincial, and federal” alongside experts like hydrologists, biologists and geologists, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, BC Wildlife Service, First Nations fisheries crews and the First Nations Fraser River Aboriginal Secretariat (BC Government, 2019).
It was led by three Incident Commanders representing each government (First Nations, provincial, federal) under a unified command (FRAFS, 2019a). In July 2019, the ICP reached out to First Nations to invite participation for the First Nations Leadership Panel (FNLP) to help assist decision-making for the fish passage remediation work. The Panel members include 47 delegates from 30 First Nation communities impacted by the landslide or those with interests in the Fraser River salmon stocks (Government of Canada, 2020).
In October 2019, the ICP transitioned to a new project structure; the tri-lateral Joint Executive Steering Committee (JESC) that consisted of experts and specialists from local First Nations, as well as provincial and federal governments who would provide the strategic direction for the incident management team (Government of Canada, 2020). There were also two technical working groups established which consisted of experts from Indigenous fisheries organizations, stakeholders, non-profit organizations, and academia. The technical working groups “provide input in the comprehensive mitigation plans for alternate fish passage methods and emergency conservation-based enhancement” (Government of Canada, 2020).
Methods and Tools Used: Collaborative Governance
“A Unified Command Incident Management Team is like an arrow. The people in the field are the arrowhead, the office personnel are the shaft, and the Joint Executive Steering Committee are the feathers that guide the direction of the arrow.” - Greg Witzky, Incident Commander (FRAFS, 2019b)
The Unified Command’s unique leadership model mapped out the participatory and collaborative planning and governance approach that engaged experts and specialists from local First Nations communities, provincial and federal governments, and watershed organizations.
Collaborative governance was used as a method of managing the emergency response as it required more technical and analytical power from multiple parties. It brought local knowledge and technical expertise together through a consensus-oriented model of decision-making (Gakhal, 2010). This process allowed for creating genuine participation that involved sharing knowledge and decision-making power and could provide policy direction for future salmon restoration initiatives and a working model for co-governance between Indigenous peoples in British Columbia and Federal and Provincial governments.
At the onset, this was an emergency that needed to be dealt with through swift, executive action - and immediately after the landslide, reopening the passage for salmon was the top priority. That said, the value of a collaborative, co-managed emergency responses in a jurisdictionally complicated setting around an issue as culturally, ecologically and economically significant as salmon fisheries – are methodologically complex, and cannot be overlooked.
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
Participation in the Fraser River restoration was emphasized from the outset. Given the number of involved groups, the Big Bar recovery planning process rests on the highest rungs of Sherry Arnstein’s Ladder of Participation; there are elements of partnership, delegated power, and citizen control.
To this end, the provincial government emphasizes First Nations participation on their Big Bar webpage and stresses that there exists collaboration between themselves, the First Nations affected, and the federal government through an “innovative collaboration . . . formed in the spirit of reconciliation and recognition of First Nations’ place at the table” (BC Government, 2019).
However, it is necessary to assess the extent to which First Nations groups ultimately influence the recovery process given the understandable need for scientific experts and government resources: the government-instituted Big Bar Landslide First Nations Leadership Panel, which includes representatives from 30 different communities and Tribal Councils, makes “decisions by consensus, provides guidance and decision-making on strategies to address the landslide” (BC Government, 2019).
Deciding on strategies does not necessarily mean they are implemented, nor does guidance necessitate action. However, as the recovery efforts progressed, the co-governance structure yielded “the redistribution of power that enables the have-not citizens, presently excluded from the political and economic processes, to be deliberately included in the future” (Arnstein, 2019, p. 24). As a result of citizen participation and power, the recovery efforts are more comprehensive.
With that said, the magnitude of Big Bar and its effects create a challenging space for citizen participation. Reflecting the fact that the landslide was a large, emergency event with considerable environmental effects, this case is different from many other participatory processes in that while broader participation was solicited (by holding meetings and sharing updates with local residents and BC citizens, for example) it is ultimately the latter two groups that are recognized as key to the restoration effort and the majority of the Big Bar incident.
While the landslide has clear social dimensions that must be considered, the environmental aspects are multi-scalar and prove to be a higher, more time-sensitive priority. With that said, non-expert locals not already included in the Unified Command have also struck up valuable partnerships with the government to aid in reconstruction efforts, the strength of these partnerships has yet to be determined outside of the Big Bar case, but the potential for new working relationships and knowledge-sharing is high after a collaborative project like this.
For example, in November 2021, First Nations and other community partners are supporting the enhancement of Big Bar by assisting with salmon stock redevelopment in the Fraser River (Community Bulletin, November 1). As such, Arnstein’s Ladder has emerged in two areas: experts and non-experts. Both groups operate among the highest rungs of the Ladder and contribute to Big Bar restoration efforts in different, but complementary ways.
When examining the landslide in relation to Fung’s Democracy Cube, the many methods of possible participation satisfy the argument that “participation serves three particularly important democratic values: legitimacy, justice, and the effectiveness of public action” (Fung, 2006, p. 74). With reference to the Cube, participants are diffuse—all affected are included. Forces in power co-govern, consult, and rely on individual education.
In terms of communication, technical expertise, preference expression and listening are all central to the river’s restoration. Many of the roles crafted for First Nations representatives have come to demonstrate “forward-looking empirical sensitivity and theoretical imagination” (Fung, 2006, p. 74).
Altogether, First Nations groups, residents, and other non-expert participants provided “local knowledge, wisdom, commitment, authority, even rectitude” which proved central to addressing “deficits in more conventional, less participatory governance arrangements” (Fung, 2006, p.74).
Indigenous groups and local citizens provide crucial perspectives that continue to inform ongoing Fraser River restoration efforts and the implementation of shared innovative engineering systems. Many facets of Fung’s Cube were thereby realized through successfully implemented participatory mechanisms that rectify judicial, social, and political inequalities. Moreover, the emphasis on co-government has unified complementary streams of knowledge, with First Nations groups and individuals utilizing Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) in tandem with modern technology. Such comprehensiveness emphasizes the importance of multiple perspectives in participatory planning and citizen participation more broadly.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
With a race against time to save the salmon migration, a joint responsibility was created between all governments to lead the response operations to restore fish access at the Big Bar slide. This collaborative governance was key to success in managing the response effectively. New partnerships such as the tri-lateral Joint Executive Steering Committee and the First Nations Leadership Panel provided strategic direction for the emergency operation, while Canada (DFO, PSPC), British Columbia’s Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development (FLNRORD), and First Nations played a role in project oversight and delivery by providing critical skills such as “engineering, procurement, biological support, and Indigenous engagement coordination” (FRAFS, 2019a).
Secondly, the participatory planning process extended beyond tokenism in that it empowered First Nations communities by involving them in each phase of the process. B.C First Nations communities had a vested interest in the remediation of the Big Bar Landslide as the slide resulted in a food security crisis for their communities; any obstructions to the salmon passage ways “places a serious risk to the food sovereignty of First Nations all along the Fraser River” (Casimer as cited Lehn, 2019).
As a result, there was a recognition of and support for Indigenous leadership to safeguard nature in all aspects. First Nations were involved in the response at all levels: “from the Joint Executive Steering Committee, Incident Command, project management, fish health, and environmental unit, to crews working on the river” (FRAFS, 2019b). The creation of the First Nations Leadership Panel was established to provide consensus-decision making by providing input and reviewing and endorsing response strategies, “all while considering cultural sensitivities and incorporating First Nations’ traditional ecological knowledge and perspectives” (FRAFS, 2019b). Thus, the participatory planning process allowed for community ownership and support of the interventions leading to a successful ongoing implementation of the project.
Thirdly, the response team brought people from a vast array of backgrounds to the planning process providing access to a broader range of perspectives and ideas. From scientists and engineers, First Nations fishing crews and archaeological monitors, field and support staff from the BC Wildfire Service, biologists, rockscalers to hydrologists; it accessed an array of specialists and expertise which helped improve the quality of decision-making. The unique collaboration of knowledge-sharing produced a great wealth of information in salmon conservation. For example, First Nation’s traditional ecological knowledge was vital in the fish capture methods including: “fish wheels, beach seining and dip netting” which used passive fishing methods that reduce stress on the fish (FRAFS, 2019b).
Lastly, the planning process was transparent to the public about each phase of the operation. It provided regular updates and engaged with Indigenous groups, stakeholders and BC citizens throughout the process. The participatory process was widely documented through a variety of ways (e.g., online information bulletin board updated monthly, interviews with different members of the operations, informational videos, etc.) This also allowed for accountability of the plan being maintained over time so that momentum wouldn't be lost. As such, the Big Bar Landslide response has provided a rare opportunity in setting a precedent for future cooperation between diverse stakeholders in working together towards environmental stewardship efforts.
Criticisms and systemic challenges
The Big Bar Landslide and resulting coordinated response can be taken as a triumph in many ways, and an example of groups that don’t always see eye to eye coming together with a common goal. Saving a vital keystone species like the Fraser Sockeye was in the interest of all stakeholders, and cooperation was logical and necessary. However, this partnership can also be seen through a more critical lens, where an ecological disaster was necessary to bring true government-to-government relations to life, despite many unmet government commitments to reconciliation.
While the largely successful partnership may provide hope of what is possible and lessons for future cooperation, it also underscores the systemic issues that exist in everyday relations between Indigenous Peoples and colonial governments. If the Big Bar Landslide is a shining beacon of participation and cooperation, why did it take an ecological disaster to get here?
Additionally, the ‘remarkable, all hands-on deck effort’ as described by the Hon. Bernadette Jordan, Minister of Fisheries, Oceans, and the Canadian Coast Guard (Fisheries and Oceans Canada, 2020) cannot be seen as separate from the backdrop of recent Canadian court decisions on Indigenous fisheries (WCEL, 2020a), and a history of inequitable resource-sharing. Recent conflicts (like those between Mi’kmaki fishers and the DFO in 2020) suggest that in situations where disputed resources are concerned, partnerships can be fleeting, and commitments to Indigenous rights don’t begin to account for the legacy that colonialism has had on the natural world and on Indigenous peoples who are simply attempting to assert their own laws in a colonized place. (WCEL, 2020b)
Another consideration is that while the Big Bar Landslide was hopefully a one-off, not to reoccur for many years, it is far from the only existential threat faced by the salmon; widespread open-net overfishing, viruses passed from salmon farms to wild salmons, rising water temperatures, habitat loss, and industrial water pollution have all led to salmon populations dropping perilously in recent years, and holistic fisheries governance is desperately needed (Blue World Nomads, 2021).
When presented with a single emergency, a collaborative response helped deal with the issue. Swapping, broad collaboration on a longer time horizon, the kind of effort needed to truly sustain wild pacific salmon for years to come, is still far away.
This is a work in progress, but the Big Bar response will continue to provide a baseline for collaboration and participation on issues around salmon, ecological conservation, emergency fishway restoration, climate change, multi-stakeholder mobilization and nation-to-nation partnerships that advance Indigenous Rights.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
Overall, the Big Bar Landslide collaboration involved co-governance between multiple levels of government, including Indigenous groups with traditional ecological knowledge (TEK). It shows how a balance of power in the planning process ultimately allows for more citizen power, as the participation of smaller community groups in the Big Bar Landslide resulted in recognition from the federal government. The response to the landslide played a significant role in the federal government’s realization of how bad things are for salmon in BC waters, and recently created ‘The Pacific Salmon Strategy’ - putting almost $700 million into conservation/stewardship, hatcheries, harvest transformation and integrated management. A successful shared water governance project offers several participation-based lessons that can be adopted into future shared water governance projects.
The lessons learned from the Big Bar landslide collaboration are assessed through the lens provided by Linda Nowlan and Karen Bakker (2010) in their manual, Practicing Shared Water Governance in Canada: A Primer. Within this document, Nowlan and Bakker (2010) offer valuable insight on effective water restoration and protection projects, detailing several lessons from successful water governance initiatives. Therefore, the lessons discussed in this section can be applied to future water governance projects and are not exclusive to the Big Bar landslide.
- The first lesson is that ongoing, cross-scalar partnerships contribute to project continuity. The Big Bar landslide collaboration involved ongoing partnerships with three levels of government: experts and specialists from First Nations groups, the Government of BC, and the Government of Canada. A complete list of stakeholders in the project includes: First Nations and Indigenous fisheries experts from Takla First Nation, Nak'azdli Whut'en, the Tsilhqot'in National Government, Carrier Sekani Tribal Council, and the UFFCA, locals, St'at'imc Eco Resources, and contractors. The Fraser River Aboriginal Fisheries Secretariat (n.d.) reports that having a unified system of governance to tackle the Big Bar Landslide was essential to ensure successful project implementation.
- The second lesson is to not omit under-resourced environmental and community stewardship groups. Nowlan and Bakker (2010) note that access to ‘local’ expertise can improve the quality of decision-making and often leads to greater public acceptance of a project. At the Big Bar landslide, local contributors consisted of a panel of First Nations groups who assessed cultural sensitivities and offered traditional ecological knowledge (TEK). The First Nations leadership panel, titled the Big Bar Landslide FN leadership panel, was the first group to organize strategic plans in response to the landslide (Fraser River Aboriginal Fisheries Secretariat, n.d.). First Nations groups were pivotal in their contributions of TEK in the project and in their early action, as TEK guides salmon capture methods (Fraser River Aboriginal Fisheries Secretariat, n.d.) - a pivotal step in re-establishing salmon migration.
- The third lesson is that water governance projects should be managed on a small geographical scale. A contributing factor to the collaboration’s success was that the Big Bar Landslide occurred within a relatively small geographical region, allowing province-wide stakeholders to clearly direct their governance. Nowlan and Bakker (2010) affirm the importance of this small scale, pointing out that keeping shared governance delegated to a small geographical area will ensure that the water project remains manageable, and that “small populations spread over large geographical areas make it challenging to set up province-wide systems for shared water governance” (p. 38).
- The fourth lesson is that public participation will be increased when there is a clear relationship between participation and concrete policy outcomes. For the Big Bar landslide, participants could clearly see how their efforts would materialize within a shared governance structure. This direct relationship accomplished two things: first, it built social trust between stakeholders, which reduced conflict over competing priorities, and second, it led to the empowerment of all stakeholders, but particularly those who are traditionally marginalized (Nowlan & Bakker, 2010).
- The fifth lesson is the importance of a comprehensive consultation process. The Big Bar landslide collaboration highlights the importance of co-governance and cross-scalar representation in participatory frameworks. Within this participatory system, experts were brought in from multiple fields who offered technical expertise, traditional ecological knowledge, and project management skills (BC Government, 2019). A thorough consultation among groups, as well as a thorough geographical survey of the land allowed for numerous options to be explored to re-stream the salmon (BC Government, 2019).
The Big Bar landslide came in tandem with an existing salmon crisis, and at the worst possible time for salmon-dependent wildlife and communities. An unsuccessful migration in 2019 would have had negative consequences reaching far beyond the Upper Fraser River, and for years to come.
The Big Bar landslide response combined Traditional Knowledges on salmon stewardship with modern salmon tracking, truck-and-transport systems, and of course – the short-lived (but successful) pneumatic Whooshh fishway. The participatory process made room for Indigenous fisheries experts to come to the table with their expertise of local watersheds, and though the landslide required an emergency response to save smolts and salmon in the 2019 run, the joint effort offers insight for co-governance that could potentially tie into the paradigm shift required from federal fisheries’ management; where Indigenous peoples are included as true partners in salmon restoration and lead in ecological stewardship planning across their territories.
Itself an example of successful participatory planning, Big Bar is only one of many other situations requiring collaboration between Indigenous groups and the provincial—or federal—government. However, much like the ongoing work on the Fraser River, citizen participation—especially in relation to equity-seeking groups—remains a developing process. Indeed, Annie L. Booth and Norman W. Skelton argue that it “is time that the federal and provincial governments supported the future of their Indigenous peoples” (2011, p. 57). As such, it remains “critical that First Nations continue to articulate and assert their rights, laws and jurisdiction over fresh waters in their territories through deliberate planning and governance processes” (FNFC, 2018, p. 10).
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