River Select

At the end of August, we had the chance to visit the Okanagan to spend some time with an amazing Indigenous Co-op: River Select.

Smoke from the August wildfires plaguing northern BC was evident in the Kelowna area during our visit, but the natural beauty of BC wasn’t hidden by the haze. Our drive into the Lower Fraser Valley was highlighted by corn fields, winding roads, and lush green landscapes. The area is packed with the promise of good food and good people.

Harrison Select

We were fortunate to encounter both when we met with Dave Moore, Manager of River Select Co-operative on the Sts’ailes First Nation near the Chehalis and Harrison Rivers. Dave gave us a tour of the fish processing site operated by the Sts’ailes and Scowlitz First Nations. This partnership, dubbed Harrison Select, brings together fishers from both Nations to brand and market a product that is harvested using traditional learnings. The logo for Harrison Select is the Sasquatch walking alongside a salmon: the Sts’ailes First Nation recognize the Sasquatch as the caretaker of the land, and the Scowlitz recognize the salmon as their logo.

(Unfortunately, there were no Sasquatch sightings during our visit.)

Sisan and Kyle with the Harrison Select logo

Dave said many First Nation communities that rely on the fishery have been concerned with declining stocks and overharvest resulting from commercial activity over the last 150 years. River Select was created in response to this destructive practice. The co-op allows relatively small-scale First Nation-owned fisheries to conduct sustainable harvest using sustainable methods while finding efficiencies through co-operation. By working together, the eight members can maintain feasibility allowing them to preserve their traditional fisheries.

“Our co-operative came into being when it became clear that these small artisanal fisheries of yesteryear, they can’t survive in today’s global economy because it’s all about large, consistent volumes year-round,” said Dave. “…we designed a fisheries co-operative that could provide the financing, the infrastructure, the professionals in order to help do the kinds of things they couldn’t afford to do as a single small enterprise, but could do collectively if they shared these things.”

While the co-op only employs four people directly, it fosters the livelihoods of hundreds of Indigenous fishers across BC.

“We invest in value-adding that fish so the community and the fishermen see more value from their efforts,” Dave said.

Each Nation maintains a storefront where they sell their own branded products that are distributed by the co-op. This complements the online store and allows each Nation to capitalize on tourists hungry for local salmon.

As a biologist who has worked in the fishing industry for over 30 years Dave knows a thing or two, so we had to ask: ‘How do you cook the perfect salmon?’ His favourite: Chinook salmon, barbequed on a cedar plank.

With mouths watering, we purchased some salmon jerky from the Sts’ailes store to satisfy our craving on the drive home.

Okanagan Select and Osoyoos Lake

On our second day, we met Howie Wright with Okanagan Nation Alliance, a representative of eight Nations in the area and the owner of Okanagan Select. Howie gave us a tour of Okanagan Select’s storefront, processing site, freezers, and dry storage areas.

After our tour of the Westbank-based site, Howie asked if we could join him at the landing ground on Osoyoos Lake where he had arranged for us to meet some local fishers. The Backroad Diaries team is always up for a road trip, so we set off for Osoyoos.

If you’re wondering how to get to Osoyoos Lake when heading south, Howie’s directions were spot on:

  1. Turn left on road 22 off highway 97
  2. Turn right onto Black Sage Road by the old barns
  3. Turn left by the second set of houses where a toilet used to be
  4. Keep left until you reach the lake

When we arrived we met Louie, the owner of Louie’s Extreme Fishing, who took us out on the lake to meet some local fishers. With the smoke thickening, we were unable to appreciate our mountainous surroundings, but that allowed us to focus on fishing.

We also met Reagan, a local fish harvester. Using sonar technology, Reagan can detect a cluster of fish, then cast out a net to surround the fish and pull them up. Once near the surface, a packing boat (a smaller boat filled with totes) moves alongside the fishing boat to receive the catch. The fish are then poured into the totes and brought ashore.

Community Fishery

Louie told us that that week the fish weren’t being harvested commercial purposes, but for the community food fishery. The fish harvested on the day we visited would go to Merritt, and fish from the following day would head to Vernon. Communities rely on the fishery for more than just revenue: the co-op helps preserve a way of life that has been practiced for thousands of years.

Limləmt, thank you, to Dave, Howie, Louie, and everyone else we met throughout the Okanagan for your hospitality and kindness.

Co-op Town: Nelson, BC

When we started thinking about communities we wanted to visit for The Backroad Diaries, one stood out as a can’t-miss: Nelson, British Columbia. This town of 10,000 is tucked in the Selkirk Mountains of BC’s West Kootenay region, and in addition to an abundance of natural beauty it hosts an abundance of co-operatives. We wanted to know why.

Upon arriving we checked into The Adventure Hotel: a bright yellow heritage building in the centre of town. We sat down to Google-map the co-ops we planned to visit during our stay, to get the lay of the land. We soon discovered we were well-situated.

The Adventure Hotel, Nelson

Sisan: “Where’s the bakery co-op?”

Aasa, google-mapping: “It’s…a six-minute walk from here”.

S: “The Community Health Co-op?”

A: “…six-minute walk”.

S: “City Hall? We’re going to talk to the mayor.”

A: “Six minutes.”

S: “Where’s the grocery co-op?”

A: “It’s across the street.”

S: “Kootenay Co-op Radio?”

A: “Around the corner.”

As a local remarked shortly after we arrived: “You can’t swing a co-op without hitting another co-op around here.”

As we chatted with people around the community, the reasons for the existence of all these co-ops were unveiled. Some people pointed out the groups who moved to the area during its history, including the pacifist Dukhobors in the early 20th century, and American draft dodgers during the Vietnam War. Others talked about how Nelson doesn’t have a dominant industry on which to base its economy. These factors, it seemed, added up to a community where people pulled together and created things for themselves.

Because Nelson is a place where people understand the co-op model and its value, more people use it when coming up with local solutions. Co-ops beget more co-ops.

We spent our days traipsing around laden with camera equipment and recording devices, attracting the attention of strangers on bicycles. We passed men in the park practicing yoga poses by putting their legs behind their heads, troubadours strumming guitars, and – on the evening before the Senate vote to pass marijuana legalization – two young men smoking a joint on a park bench over-looking the city.

“Tomorrow it will be legal!” called out a cheerful passer-by.

We quickly learned that marijuana production has a long history in the region, and makes up (some say) around 30 per cent of the economy.

Legalization brings some interesting and exciting opportunities, which — unsurprisingly — one group in the area is using the co-operative model to capture. (Todd Veri — above — is involved in the Kootenay Outdoor Producer Co-operative, which will grow outdoor cannabis).

Throughout our stay we also noticed a trend: that many of the people who make up Nelson were not born in the area, but came to visit at some point and just decided to stay. We could certainly see the allure: some stay for the scenery and the opportunities for outdoor activities, some for the artistic community or hippie-vibe, others enjoy the peaceful seclusion of being tucked into a tree-filled valley. Whatever the reason, they’ve chosen to be part of a community that is, perhaps above all else, co-operative.

To see more about the co-ops we visited, follow us on Facebook (@TheBackroadDiaries), Twitter (@TheBackRDiaries) and Instagram (@TheBackroadDiaries).