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Doug’s 2-minute statement on oolichan history in Northwest BC

There’s oil flowing across the northwest, and the people of Stikine are happy to get in on the action. I’m talking oolichan oil, of course — a sustainable product providing jobs, making life more affordable for many and supplying part of a local diet that reduces health care system dependency.

The oolichan run has returned to the Skeena and Nass. The oil has been rendered in a time-honoured process along the banks of those mighty rivers and the final product transported to Hazelton and further into the Interior. That is something that could be said every year for the last 10,000 years. Trading in oolichan oil was the basis of a thriving community between the Gitxsan and coastal First Nations.

The oil is solid at room temperature, with a consistency of butter. It was packed in cedar boxes along well-worn paths that were termed “grease trails” by early European explorers. Alexander Mackenzie’s famous overland trip through the coastal mountains to the Pacific Ocean followed an ancient grease trail.

Up to 15 percent of the body weight of these sardine-like fish is fat, and the oil is high in vitamins. So oily that they’re also known as candle fish, because, when dried, they could be fitted with a wick and burned like a candle. These small fish not only play an extremely role in the northwest ecosystem, but the trade is a demonstration of the economic component of aboriginal rights and title, and the trails reinforce First Nations’ authority and jurisdiction on the landbase.

Some rivers no longer have a run. The Haisla point to pollution from the Eurocan pulp mill as a culprit in the loss of a teeming run of oolichan in the Kitimat River. The mill is now closed and gone. So are the oolichan. It’s something we need to reflect on when considering fossil fuel–related development at the mouth of the Skeena River, where the estuary is an important area for oolichan as they transition between fresh water and salt water. Oolichan oil is part of living healthy in the northwest, part of who we are and part of living well in our communities.