Episode 2: Shannon McPhail in the Skeena

"Water right now is worth more than oil. And we're giving it away. We're polluting it, we're making it toxic... And we don't need to."

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Join Danielle as she sits down with Shannon McPhail to discuss the interconnectedness of economy, community, culture and the environment in northern B.C. 

Shannon McPhail is the executive director of Skeena Watershed Conservation Coalition, an organization she co-founded with other community members and twice recognized as one of the top ten most effective and innovative organizations in Canada. She is a mother of two teens and grew up in the Kispiox Valley hunting, fishing, horse-packing into the mountains and rafting the rivers with her family. Her spare time is dedicated to food as an avid gardener, butcher, sausage maker, food preserver and loves freediving for scallops and other ocean goodies.

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Episode 3: Mark Angelo

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Danielle | 0:01

I'm Danielle Paydli and this is the Freshwater Stream, a podcast about B.C.’s watersheds and the people who care about them.

Today we're interviewing Shannon McPhail up in Hazleton in the Kispiox Valley. We're going to talk about her work, her community and her watershed.

But before we begin, let's get to know the Skeena. Let's meet the people who live here and find out what the river means to them.

Community Member 1 | 0:27

I love the Skeena, as she is Mother Earth's artery into our traditional territories, provides fresh water and nourishment to all that is. She is the source of life.

Community Member 2 | 0:42

In 1946, the Canadian author Roderick Haig-Brown wrote, quote, “rivers are veins of the earth through which the lifeblood returns to the heart.” For me, the Skeena is a nutrient highway. It's a nursery area for many aquatic species. And it brings life to the people on the earth, the Skeena is how the land breathes.

Community Member 3 | 1:09

I love the Skeena because it provides us with our miso'o, our sockeye for the winter months.

Community Member 4 | 1:15

I am Gitxsan. I am the Skeena.

Community Member 6 | 1:21

I love the Skeena River because it's a highway. It's a garden. It's a playground, and it connects all lives, from the fish to the grizzly from the water to all of us.

Danielle | 1:36

Shannon McPhail is the executive director of Skeena Watershed Conservation Coalition, an organization she co-founded with other community members and twice recognized as one of the top ten most effective and innovative organizations in Canada.

She's a mother of two teens and grew up in the Kispiox Valley hunting, fishing, horseback riding into the mountains and rafting the rivers with her family. Her spare time is dedicated to food. As an avid gardener, butcher, sausage maker and food preserver, she loves free diving for scallops and other ocean goodies.

Thank you so much for joining us, Shannon. As you know, we're taking a bit of a road trip, or kayak trip, through watersheds across this great province. Can you take us on a bit of a walk through the Skeena watershed and describe it for us?

Shannon McPhail | 2:24

Well, the walkthrough of our watershed would take a really long time!

The watershed is just over 54,000 square kilometres. So it's slightly bigger than Switzerland. There are about 65,000 people that live in the watershed mostly in the lower part. So the upper reaches of the watershed sort of function as the lungs and the liver. And of course, like as most people know, the Skeena is born in this beautiful valley called the Sacred Headwaters. And from that place, three rivers are born: the Nass, the Stikine and the Skeena. And the only other place in the world where that happens is in Tibet. And that place is considered so important that humans are not allowed to set foot in it.

But here, I think we have a different view about how we relate to land and that is leaning, you know, quoting thousands and thousands of years of Indigenous intellectual property. We are the land and the land is us, and what we do to the land we do to ourselves. And you see that in the sacred headwaters where the Tahltan have been stewarding that place for literally thousands of years. And it's pretty magical, like the Stikine water and the Skeena water actually mix at this lake called Swan Lake right at the height of land. It comes out as the Spatsizi river out of these mountains way to the west of the meadows where all this water comes from. And it flows out of the mountains into this little lake. And the lake at its deepest point is like, maybe up to my shoulders. You can walk across it. Now to the back corner of it, there's this little slough that sort of meanders out of it. So the Spatsizi River, which is part of the Stikine, feeds that lake and then this little slough on the other side is actually the very birthplace of the Skeena.

So it's the Stikine in a sense, the Stikine watershed that births the Skeena, which is actually really cool. And from there, you find all your mega flora or fauna, like there are grizzly bears, and black bears, and stone sheep, and wolverines, and wolves and groundhog and mountain goat, caribou. It's all right there in that one place.

Danielle | 4:49

That's, that's wonderful. I can really see that, like when you're describing it, how much you love your community and the place that you live. It's just really evident, as you, kind of, describe it and take us through that.

What do you feel is one of the most important issues right now for your watershed?

Shannon McPhail | 5:05

I was just asked that question by some high school students who were doing an assignment.

And they emailed me that very question. So like we do with lots of things. I sent it out to the community. I sent it to some habitat biologists, some ecosystem ecologists, some hereditary leaders, some land-based people, some farmers, some consultants and fisheries biologists and some campaigners, and the answers I got back all kind of pointed to the same thing. And that is, our government is the biggest threat to our watershed right now.

It's their decisions that are permitting the massive amounts of ridiculous clear-cut practices, the wasting of wood out in the bush, the permitting of massive LNG terminals and salmon estuaries and pipelines across unceded territories.

Mount Polley: they didn't have to... the taxpayers had to pay to clean that up and we see that time and time again. People really jump on the boom bus, but they aren't willing to endure a really long bust. And we've seen it here in northwest BC, you know, the Gold Rush, the fur trade, the fall of the logging industry, the mining industry, the forest sector, we've been through countless booms and busts, and the people who were here are people who want to be here, people who carved out an existence. I think of my brother, who has a woodlot, who is a fish guide, who does some carpentry work, who builds fencing, who does some rafting, who does all of these different things, to make an annual income, just so that he can live here. And there are lots of people like that, like, unless you're a teacher or a doctor, or you're working for RCMP, people do that.

Danielle | 6:54

So for the people who want to make a living outside of resource extraction industries, and if the community, in general, wants to move outside of the boom and bust type of economy, what does that look like?

Shannon McPhail | 7:05

I think because we live here, and because this is our home, we want solutions for our own family. Like people who support pipelines, and people who fight them are actually doing it for the same reason. We just want a future for our families. And we disagree on how to get there.

But something that growing up here has taught me, is that we can disagree and still be respectful. We can argue and still be good neighbours, our kids, you know, they go to the same school, they play soccer on the same team, or hockey.

So part of the solution building was figuring out if we don't want pipelines, if we don't want oil and gas going through our communities, through our watershed, how are we going to power our communities and heat our homes?

So we started Skeena Energy Solutions, and we were looking at biomass, and plastic to oil machines, and all these different ways in which we could build sort of this conservation-based economy or a restoration economy. And Kesia Nagata, she was running that program, and was working with some hereditary chiefs out in Kitwanga. And they built, they wanted to build, this big garden. And so she helped make that happen.

And in conversations with her, they sort of challenged her to figure out a reliable protein source that wasn't salmon, but could be raised on Gitxsan territories in a way that's culturally appropriate and fits within this really beautiful Gitxsan law called Gwalx Ye'insxwtis. And that's my best attempt at pronouncing it. I’m not Gitxsan, so you have to excuse me, but that word, the definition was described to me as, “We have received a full basket, and it is our duty to pass a full basket on,” and that is both the tangible and the intangible, the physical and the spiritual and all the knowledge of how to utilize those things and to ensure that the basket that we're handing to future generations is full and that our future generations can grow from that. So it never diminishes in value.

So we're like, oh, yeah, we'll create a reliable protein source based on that, our understanding of that concept. And so it was Kesia and Yvon Chouinard actually, who came up with the idea of regenerative agriculture and Kesia had reached out to this really incredible fella named Reginaldo Haslett-Marroquin, who's a Guatemalan chicken farmer in Minnesota.

So the whole concept is around: How do we feed our community, increase food security and sovereignty, in a way that doesn't just not harm the land but maybe helps to regenerate it, sequesters carbon and helps contribute to you know, healthy chickens, healthy land, healthy communities, healthy people and regen ag.

It was the answer, but Reggie's form of it, because he recognizes that anything you do on the land you're doing on somebody's territory, that is somebody traditional territories, all of our businesses, all of our non-profits, or organizations or communities are on somebody's indigenous territory. And that was really central to how Reggie had built this, this scalable system.

So we learned that in the Skeena, we consume about nine of these units of poultry every year. So our big, hairy, audacious goal is that every grocery store will sell locally raised chickens that not only contribute to like, because they're really delicious. Oh my gosh, they're so tasty. It also, we're, you're buying climate action. You're buying the implementation on the United Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous people.

And yes, it's small scale. But our goal is to scale up. That all of the grains that these chickens eat are grown and sourced here, that the chicks that we buy are sourced here, that the farmer just farms and that we can then take care of the rest, the marketing, the distribution, all of that stuff, and that its local people going, you know, working in one of these chicken farms, or that they own their own chicken farms.

And so now we've got interested people who want to start doing the same thing. And last year, 2020, was our pilot year, which we didn't expect a pandemic. So things got really hard. And we also got 180% of annual rainfall, which was also really hard.

But in the end, we raised 1500 chickens. We did one test flock, and they sold out in moments. So the goal is to do two flocks a year and then use it as a training center for others who want to do the same thing. And that each farmer will then contribute 1% of their revenue to like a regen ag. trust in the Skeena so we can help other farmers get started as well.

Danielle | 12:05

That sounds amazing. It also sounds like you faced a lot of barriers with the rainfall, and doing this at a time when other folks are shutting down many of their projects, you and your team were just like, this is the time or this is going to be the time to make this a reality. So kudos to all of you.

So I'm interested in knowing if this project is replicable in other communities, and is it sustainable for the economy in the long term?

Shannon McPhail | 12:30

We're seeing regen. ag. take off more and more and more.

So what we're trying to do isn't we're not trying to necessarily be a local farmer in that way, we're trying more to, to scale up on the commercial side of things. So we don't necessarily want to sell direct to community members, we want to sell to grocery stores. And we want other local farmers to be able to sell direct, we don't want to compete with those who are already raising chickens on a smaller scale. So it's totally replicable. Sorry, that was a hard word to get out there, replicable. And, but fitting it within a scalable system. That's the crux. And that's what we're trying to figure out right now. So I don't want to sound like we have all the answers. Because we don't, there's a lot of head-scratching going on. And there are some tough things to move through. But we have such a cool crew of people that it keeps moving forward. And the chicken farm right now is on Gitanmaax band land. And the Skeena Valley farms who, whose farm it's on is owned by this really charismatic fella, Nate Combs, who happens to be Gitxan. And I think it was him who coined the term “chickeneer.” So we're always looking for more chickeneers to, to join in the fun, because it is really fun.

But ultimately we want to prove that we can build an economy that salmon can thrive with, an economy that actually takes climate action seriously, that takes, you know, systemic racism seriously, that implements the recommendations of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, that increases food security, that helps make healthy communities but ultimately, that is a community-building exercise. We can have that kind of economy, because I've seen it practiced here. It might be informal in some ways, but without, without people who are doing some of this critical work like auntie's who are looking after people's kids so that the parents can go to work. You know, there's all of this unpaid work or the sharing economy that happens here. And it's massive. I mean, you think about the economies that support this watershed, wild salmon contribute $110 million each and every year. And remember, this is a massive piece of geography, but there's only like 65,000 people here. $110 million from one species is a shit ton of money. And that puts very little value on the sustenance. It was IBM business consulting who ran those numbers, wild mushrooms in the lower Skeena are $21 million a year. Guide outfitting is $28 million a year. Tourism in northern BC is a billion dollar a year industry. and what all of those things need to thrive is a healthy watershed. So we're not just, we're not just doing this because we're enviros. I mean, if you look up redneck in the encyclopedia, you're gonna see my family's photo there. So I think when you have cowboys and Indigenous folks and farmers and ranchers and loggers and miners, and they're all sort of saying the same thing: we want jobs, and we want an economy and we aren't willing to sacrifice our salmon, or, or other economies to do it. And I think that's the crux of the matter is when one industry comes in and threatens so much of that and that industry's owned by, you know, corporations from across the ocean, where the vast amount of benefits go there as well, that's when I get pissed off. When I see wood pellets leaving on rail cars when we're in a massive minus 30 to 40 cold snap, and there's a pellet shortage, but I'm seeing hundreds of rail cars go by packed with them, or when there's a feed shortage for livestock, but I see wheat and grain going by in rail cars all the time. I think it's time for us to take care of our farmers, and our communities and our people.

Danielle | 16:51

I've been hearing you talk about food security jobs, like community investment of time and resources, partnerships, kind of all of these really essential elements of watershed security but I'd really love to get your take on how you understand that term of watershed security?

Shannon McPhail | 17:12

I don't know how I would define watershed security. Because to me, it's all the same thing. Food security, economic security, environmental security, that's all the same thing to me.

Like, we need a healthy watershed in order to have food security in order to have economic security, in order to have environmental security and cultural security as well. Like there, I don't see the difference between those things.

What I do see is, I kind of think maybe of a three-legged stool, and I would look at economy community, and in community, I would include culture and the environment. And it makes up the whole let's see that whole is watershed security. And if you put too much emphasis on economy, well, then one of the other two legs has to suffer, and you're out of balance. And it might make short-term sense. But it's not sustainable. Not, not genuinely.

Danielle | 18:06

I think you've explained it really wonderfully. It's where everything converges, the source of our food homes, the animals that live here, as you said, like everything is so interconnected. And it really boils down to community like it's the heart of our communities.

Shannon McPhail | 18:21

And a watershed is something you know, if, if a raindrop falls, where does that water eventually go? Well, all water goes somewhere. And it generally leads to our rivers, which is where our salmon are, and salmon are critically important, to our entire ecosystem.

I mean, you, you pick a blade of grass, or pull a needle from any tree, and you're gonna have salmon DNA in there, in the form of their nitrogen. You can look at the growth rings on a tree and know how many salmon were in the river that year based on the size of that growth ring. We are completely interdependent. And I think the more we try to separate ourselves from the fact that this is, this is the very land and place that gives us what we need the air we breathe the water that we drink. I mean, these things are of vital importance.

When we had in 2018, we hit stage four drought, people's wells were drying up or they weren't recharging fast enough. Couldn't water their gardens, so food security was threatened in a huge way. Salmon, they might be able to get up some of the rivers but not get to their spawning grounds because the creeks were too shallow or too hot. Predators had way more access to them, the groundwater dropped out. If we don't look after what we've got, you know, when I think about these tailings ponds that are killing lakes, you know, with fish in it, like we have, B.C. has some of the greatest freshwater resources in the world. Water right now is worth more than oil. And we're giving it away. We're polluting it, we're making it toxic in all of these different industries. And we don't need to. There are so many solutions out there. We're just not implementing them.

Watershed security isn't just about the watershed. It's about the policies and the practices that are put in place so that we're not leaking money or resources out of our community, or the money and resources that we actually need to stay right here.

So watershed security, to me, means that we don't have to fight all of these battles. If we didn't have to spend so much time fighting these ridiculous proposals, imagine the type of economy we could be building if that's where our energy and attention were focused. Imagine what the Wet'suwet'en could be doing right now, if they weren't fighting the coastal gaslink pipeline. Imagine what they could, you know, what all of us could be doing right now, if we weren't having to constantly hold government accountable to their own laws? How many court cases has Canada and B.C. lost against First Nations who are just trying to maintain what they already have? Or just trying to get Canada to honour the treaties?

I mean, this is hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars of our money that's being spent so our governments can break their own laws. But I also believe that the best governments are made by the most accountable citizenship. So we as citizens need to keep holding our government accountable. And that's what I'm going to keep doing.

Danielle | 21:31

Yes, I like, have tingles. So I’d love to hear a bit more about what you see the role of local community is in decision-making when it comes to their watersheds?

Shannon McPhail | 21:39

I think when people are rooted in place, and they're making decisions about the very land that they live on, they tend to make better decisions. If they're connected to that outcome, if they're the ones who are going to have to live with the consequences, whether positive or negative, the decision-making improves.

But when decisions are made in Ottawa, or Victoria, for places that are thousands of kilometres away, those decisions aren't rooted in community. They're not rooted in common sense, and they're not always practical.

Communities should make decisions that impact those communities. It's not up to other people to tell us how we should or shouldn't live. We know what it takes to live here. That doesn't mean we have it down perfect. But we might have a little more lived experience and knowledge than somebody from Ottawa or Victoria, who's never been here, who's never connected to a place where the people here. And that's the kind of decision-making I want to see. Watershed-based decision making that recognizes the rights and title of indigenous people. We need the land to thrive so we can.

Danielle | 22:49

Thank you to Shannon McPhail, all the Skeena community members that contributed to this podcast, our partners in crime Watershed Watch Salmon Society and to Brenden MacDonald our audio engineer who dedicates countless hours to making this podcast a reality.

You can find out more about this episode at freshwaterstream.ca. And if you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe rate and review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you like to listen. It really does make a difference. I'm going to leave it to the Skeena community members to sign us off, as they'll do a better job than I ever could.

Community Member 7 | 23:26

I love the Skeena because it produces sockeye salmon. Sockeye salmon are the backbone to Lake Babine Nation people's culture. Without salmon I don't know where we would be. Salmon not only feed our bodies they feed our souls without salmon we would be lost

Community Member 8 | 23:50

I grew up in a place where the summer is going to 35 degrees and and the river is toxic. I remember having seen this big sign that said you cannot go swimming you can not fish you cannot do anything. I love the Skeena. I love to be able to drink the water, to be able to swim in it, play in it and then my kids can do that and never experience what I experienced as a kid

Community Member 9 | 24:18

Our life as Gitxsan people it's been in our blood for 1000s of years the teachings of providing food that come from the river that feed our people and our wilpom is a very important asset that's why we as the people will protect that river.


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The Freshwater Stream is a collaborative effort between the Canadian Freshwater Alliance, CodeBlue BC and Watershed Watch Salmon Society.