It was a watershed once famous for being bloated with salmon. Then a hundred years of urban and industrial development took away the very reason the close by city was given its name. According to Kwikwetlem First Nations Counselor Fred Hulbert, elders speak of walking across the river and barely getting their feet wet there were so many salmon. Coquitlam is an anglicization of “Kwikwetlem,” which means “Red salmon up the river” or “Small red salmon” in the Halkomelem language. The Kwikwetlem First Nation has lived in the area since time immemorial, drawing sustenance from the Coquitlam river, which ran red with coho, chinook, pink, chum and sockeye.
Now the First Nation is working with the City of Coquitlam and a handful of local organizations to bring the salmon back. Their work has prompted two projects – one to bring salmon back to the Coquitlam River; the other to bring salmon to the city sidewalks.
The story of Coquitlam’s disappearing salmon begins in 1905. At that time, Coquitlam was a fledgling mill town. As the town’s population grew, so did the region’s need for power, and so a dam was constructed to serve two purposes: supply drinking water to New Westminster via Coquitlam Lake and ensure water would flow consistently to powerhouses on Indian Arm. The salmon lost out.
The original dam had a fish ladder, but a few years later when the dam was reconstructed, the ladder was left out, and so the thin blue line that granted salmon passage to the Pacific was cut off. Those in the reservoir upstream became landlocked and transformed from sockeyes to kokanees (the name given to salmon that don’t migrate), and for more than a century, Coquitlam lost touch with the sockeye.
Nearly one hundred years later, thanks to the urging of the Kwikwetlem First Nation, the Salmon Restoration Project was formed. This organization, which includes the Kwikwetlem First Nation, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, the BC Ministry of Environment, BC Hydro, Metro Vancouver and local stewardship organizations, has been working ever since to restore the sockeye salmon run.
In 2005, one hundred years after the dam was built, 1,500 of those landlocked kokanees were released down the river to make the migration back to the Pacific. In the spring of 2017, the restoration project embarked on its most ambitious project to date.
More than 5,000 young salmon or smolts were released in April 2017 to make their way to the Pacific. In 2019 they are expected to return to the base of the Coquitlam Dam, and the organization is hoping their return will be be the largest in more than 100 years.
It’s this story in part, that inspired the city of Coquitlam to create a project of its own — this time to celebrate the cultural significance of the salmon. Coquitlam celebrated its 125th anniversary last year and to mark the occasion, the city commissioned Squamish artist Jody Broomfield to sculpt 12 giant salmon sculptures, made from fibreglass composite.
The 12 sculptures have been installed throughout the city, at park entrances and in front of City Hall, all part of work undertaken by the Coquitlam Anniversary Steering Task Force.
“It was cool because we engaged local artists, and engaged the community in selecting the art,” said Karen Basi the city’s cultural services manager. Twelve artists were chosen from a pool of 41 applicants, who adorned the sculptures with paint and other materials. “The artists have done an amazing job,” said Basi.
Now, for the city’s upcoming Culture Days, running from 29 September to 1 October, you can participate in a scavenger hunt involving the salmon sculptures.