Trans Mountain continued working in the Kw’ikw’iya:la (Coquihalla) River on and off for two weeks after being admonished for jeapordizing an already-precarious salmon run, IndigiNews has learned.
The company announced it had completed its in-stream work for its Trans Mountain Expansion (TMX) project on Aug. 11. This came four days after a local man recorded invasive work being done that involved trenching through the waterway to install a pipeline underneath the river within S’olh Temexw, in “Hope, B.C.” The statement said Trans Mountain would work to reclaim the site to its original condition and early-run salmon would be able to continue to move upstream.
On Aug. 15, IndigiNews observed an excavator rearranging boulders along the riverbanks and occasionally dropping them into the water in an effort to restore the riverbed, creating a turbulent scene characterized by the sound of heavy machinery that rocked both the water and the land through its operations.
Giant sandbags — which were deployed to help stiffen up a “dam” around the excavation area — were also being lifted from the river with the help of a massive crane, sending streams of water falling from the air every few minutes.
Tubes fed into decommissioned drainage pumps that sat in the river were hanging from the edge of the riverbank, as workers in harnesses cautiously navigated the water’s current to remove whatever equipment was left of such machines. Both the sandbags and drainage pumps were used to reduce the flow of water through the excavation area as the pipe was being installed.
This dismantling work was observed two days later, and continued during an Indigenous-led ceremony that was taking place for the river. As dozens of people sang, smudged and laid tobacco — with some stepping into the water to pay their respects — TMX workers continued to remove equipment from the waterway.
During both days, handfuls of dead and rotting fish were seen strewn along both sides of the river near the construction site.
Trans Mountain confirmed in a statement that they started in-stream work on Aug. 2, and “work associated with recontouring the bed and banks occurred intermittently up until August 21, 2022 and has now been completed.”
“Any early-run salmon were able to continue to move upstream and downstream through the area where instream work was occurring,” the company said in an email to IndigiNews. “No sockeye salmon were harmed during construction. Several salmon observed within the instream area where works were occurring were moved upstream away from the works.”
TMX said the work was done with proper permits and according to government regulations which required it to be completed by Aug. 31. However, “reclamation of the riparian areas will continue over the next year,” it stated.
On Aug. 7, as spawning salmon were in the middle of their run up the Kw’ikw’iya:la River, Tim Henry, a Vuntut Gwitchin and Tlingit resident of “Hope,” quickly raced to the site from his nearby home after being alerted that the TMX project was conducting heavy machinery work in-stream.
Henry said he observed a river full of running salmon that morning.
“The fish were trying to get by the machines,” he told IndigiNews on Aug. 15. “They’re still finding dead fish around.”
Henry said he witnessed three large excavators digging to create a trench through the waterway on Aug. 7. The machines were making room for the TMX pipeline that would eventually be installed under the river just a few days later, a procedure that also included replacing a segment of an existing pipeline. The company is twinning its 1,150-km pipeline which spans from “Alberta” to “B.C.”
Henry recorded himself confronting two TMX workers, expressing deep concerns about the fate of the salmon run.
“How can you do this with your heart? How can you do that? All these kids and everybody depend on this fish!” Henry screamed at the workers. “They’re killing all the fish right in the middle of the run. They’re killing them all.”
Henry said that his comments were made in the spur of the moment.
“I just lost it. It was wrong and I had to say something,” he said.
Henry’s video went viral and continues to be shared across various social media platforms, prompting both a local and national outrage. Questions are being raised around why Trans Mountain would carry out such a task in the middle of salmon returning, and some are calling for the project to be abandoned altogether to prevent further environmental harm from occurring.
Ha’yoł’kaał Ch’il’aataHozhon (Morning Glory) Breanna Tso, a Diné, syilx and Secwepemc resident of the nearby city of “Chilliwack,” saw Henry’s video and instantly recognized the river. For Tso, the river is a place of healing for herself, and often visits the creeks in “Hope” with family and friends.
She decided to visit the TMX construction site along the Coquihalla River a week after viewing Henry’s video, to get a glimpse of the work herself.
“Once you actually get there and once you actually see what’s happening, and you’re standing next to it – you see it, you feel it in the ground,” said Tso.
“It’s just a pain feeling in my chest seeing it happen. It’s like a slow traumatizing feeling just watching it happen.”
She also witnessed the excavators “ripping up” the river’s ecosystem, as well as the presence of the large diversion pumps.
“It’s bad enough that they’re putting in this pipeline,” she said. “But to be right in the river, right when the fish are spawning – how are we supposed to get the fish to come back if they’re wrecking where the spawning is supposed to be?”
In-stream August work approved by DFO
Trans Mountain requires a number of federal permits to be approved before it can carry out TMX work, which includes authorization from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO).
In November 2021, DFO greenlit Trans Mountain’s proposed open cut crossing of the Coquihalla River. In July, the permit was amended to change construction dates to occur between Aug. 1 and 31, 2022. In its authorization document, DFO noted that the work would result in “permanent alteration” of approximately 800 square metres of in-stream spawning habitat for salmon and trout.
Under the federal government’s Fisheries Act, DFO has the authority to manage Pacific salmon and their habitat. DFO’s Wild Salmon Policy addresses five species of Pacific salmon: sockeye, coho, Chinook, pink and chum.
DFO told IndigiNews that the salmon migration timing to the Fraser River, which the Coquihalla River is a tributary of, is typically from April through October depending on the species and natal stream.
Not all five species of Pacific salmon migrate up Coquihalla river, DFO noted. The main species that do are odd-year pinks, with none expected this year, they said.
When asked if they anticipated – or aware – that a salmon run would occur during the construction’s “least risk work timing window” from August 1 to 31, DFO said that “significant work on this crossing has been completed.”
“Delaying the completion of the work would increase the risk to salmon as they arrive in greater numbers in August and September,” said DFO.
Meanwhile, Trans Mountain stated that “The early-run sockeye salmon observed in the Coquihalla River were associated with the early-run Stuart River population and were not expected in the Coquihalla River lower reaches.”
According to the Endangered Species Coalition, rising freshwater temperatures of west coast river systems due to climate change, and habitat loss brought on by human development, are contributing factors to the endangerment of multiple species of salmon.
In 2020, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) listed Sakinaw salmon as endangered, Interior Fraser coho as threatened and Okanagan Chinook as endangered. Of 24 types of Fraser sockeye, eight were classified as endangered, two threatened, five of special concern and nine not at risk.
DFO’s authorization of TMX’s open cut crossing of the Kw’ikw’iya:la River also prohibits “the killing, harming, harassment, capture or taking of individuals of any aquatic species” listed under the Species at Risk Act (SARA), or the damage or destruction of residence of individuals of such species, or the destruction of the critical habitat of any such species.
“My main concern is that if we keep going on with the materialistic mindset that we’re all living in, what is going to be left for our kids and our grandkids?” said Tso. “What if my grandkids don’t even get to eat salmon? And they don’t even know what it’s like?”
For Henry, his concern with the newly installed pipeline is the pipe potentially bursting, which he fears would not only harm the entire ecosystem, but could endanger the future of salmon as a whole.
“If I have anything to do with it, my great-grandchildren are going to be able to enjoy the salmon,” he said.
“Even with having the permit to do the work … this should not be acceptable,” said Kate Tairyan, a health sciences professor at Simon Fraser University and a resident of “Hope” since 2009.
“This should outrage everyone. Not only people who live near the river – all of us depend on this river.”
Tairyan is a member of Protect the Planet, which is opposed to the entire TMX project, and she has been collaborating with Henry to bring more awareness to the matter. The river runs right behind her backyard, and she has been documenting and sharing online the TMX construction along the waterway since it began on Aug. 2.
On the first day of construction, she said that she discovered around a dozen dead fish along the river, all in close proximity to the construction site. On Aug. 2, she said she opened the bellies of five dead salmon in the river, with four of them still carrying eggs.
“We are raising the alarm. We want more people to see and understand that this is not how you steward,” she said. “This is not how you take care of a lifeline. This river is a lifeline for so many people.”
Tairyan is calling for more accountability from both the government and Trans Mountain, and for the construction of the pipeline to be stopped.
“This is about protecting this pristine, beautiful, environment that we are so fortunate to live in,” she said. “If we continue doing this kind of project, what are we going to leave behind?”
Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs stopped by the site during their nation-to-nation tour on Aug. 16. Henry said they gifted medicine bundles, as well as water and river stone from their homelands.
Dozens of people attended a ceremony that was hosted at the river by the TMX construction site on Aug. 17, organized by locals and activists, including Henry and Tairyan.
The purpose of the ceremony, Henry said, was to honour the river and the land.
“Our forefathers took care of this land for thousands of years. They had respect for it,” he said. “We’re showing respect. Trans Mountain can build their pipeline – we’re trying to mitigate the damage they do.”
He pleaded to the public to educate themselves on the issue, and to make the extra effort to visit the site to gain a better understanding and to share what’s going on.
“Look at your little brother, your little sister, your grandchild – any little kids. Imagine what they might not have if we don’t stop big corporations from doing whatever the hell they want,” he said.
“I just want to do whatever I can to make sure that the salmon have a place to live and grow, that our people have a food source down the road.”
Aaron Hemens, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Discourse