Canada is bracketed with salmon in all its incarnations. It is THE Canadian fish — a fish of legends and it is so delicious that it is served with pride in dozens of cultural kitchens. First Nations splay it on cedar and fire-roast it; Japanese love it raw; Scandinavians will make it into gravlax…the list is long.We may find it as the centrepiece of upscale Vancouver barbecue or simply grilled on a beach fire in Atlantic Canada. Salmon is a luxurious food, a seasonal specialty, and is as much an icon of Canadian food as are maple syrup and wheat.
Across eastern Canada, the Atlantic salmon is iconic. Twice within its Latin name, Salmo salar, the root word ‘leaper’is referenced. This mighty fish can accelerate to 30 kph/20mph to jump up to 4 metres. Until the late 1700’s, rivers flowing into Lake Ontario supported an extremely large population of Atlantic salmon. Salmon still migrate great distances from their home rivers, some up to 4000 km. Like their distant cousins the Pacific salmon in British Columbia, they return to their own pools to spawn. However, unlike B.C. salmon, they live to spend at least one or two more seasons at sea punctuated by other spawning runs.
During their first return to their home river, Atlantic salmon usually weigh 1 to 2 kg. After that they are considered adult salmon and can grow to 20 kg. The largest Atlantic salmon landed officially in North America was in 1939 on Quebec’s Cascapedia River and weighed 25 kg / 55 lbs.
Meanwhile, in the west, for millennia, the salmon of the Pacific have returned to the bronze-washed, autumnal British Columbian coast. The kelp-filled coves and the streams are full of spawning salmon in autumn – Coho, pink, chum, sockeye, steelhead and the noble Chinook. They sense their way and head to the pool in which they hatched. It might be in a small, woodsy stream like the creek that flows through Stanley Park or the Capilano River in downtown Vancouver. It could be hundreds of kilometres up the wild Fraser River into the interior or up the newly created fish runs along the estuary of the legendary Campbell River of Vancouver Island.
For the natives of the northwest coast, the returning fish were held in such reverence that the fish were adopted as clan crests to be emblazoned on dance robes and totems. Belief systems sprang up around the fish and its relationship to life. They watched for nature’s seasonal signals….the blooming of the sagebrush buttercup announced one run, while theclicking noise of a certain grasshopper announced another.
In those times, the salmon came back in abundance. Weirs were placed at the mouths of rivers, nets were woven, sharply pronged spears were made and there was also the simple hook and line made from cedar or kelp. The native communities had the technology to catch entire runs, but they did not. In at least one band, the Nuxalk of Bella Coola, there were river guardians who, through heredity, were charged with the responsibility to protect the waterway from pollution and over-fishing. Punishment was severe and could even be death.
Fresh salmon were often simply butter-flied, fastened on cedar sticks and roasted beside an open fire. The fish were layered with seaweed and cooked in large communal pits or stewed in bentwood boxes using hot rocks to bring the water to a furious boil in Canada’s only indigenous cooking method. Covered smokehouses were, and in many regions still are, part of the fish camp. In drier areas wind dehydrated the catch. Salmon roe was smoked by hanging it in large clumps over a smoldering, likely-alder, fire. The tails and the backbone were dried for crisp snacks.
By the mid to late 1800s, a substantial commercial fishing industry had sprung up wrapped around the canneries and packing houses which dotted the coast. Japanese, First Nations and fishers of European origin netted their catches from the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the Alaskan border. It became such big business that BCP 45, the BC Packers fishing boat of Harry Assu from Cape Mudge, a village just opposite Campbell River on Vancouver Island, was pictured on the back of Canada’s old $5 bills.
The importance of this fish was summed up by the late Roderick Haig-Brown, a magistrate in Campbell River, British Columbia when he wrote “The salmon are part of the country’s character, as are the fishermen and the fishing settlements.”