Francine and Darwin Douglas stand in front of their new venture: the Stó:lō Seafood Company. The processing facility on Scowlitz territory will improve access to high-quality, locally sourced and produced salmon and seafood products. (Nina Grossman/The Observer)

Stó:lō couple improving access to local, fair trade fish

New salmon and seafood processing facility opens near Harrison Mills

Since 2013, the Highway 9 route to the Rosedale overhead has boasted the eye-catching, red, black and white painted Cheam Trading Post. The shop markets local, fair-trade, hand-crafted goods and wild, sustainably-harvested Coast Salish food and fish products.

But without their own facility, owners Darwin and Francine Douglas have been at the mercy of suppliers, sometimes making it difficult to provide the quantity and quality of product they want.

That’s why the couple is excited to open Stó:lō Seafood Company, a processing facility where they can freeze, store and smoke their own supply of fish, along with custom orders from local fishers. If all goes as planned, their new venture will bring even more local and ethically produced salmon and seafood products to the area.

“Now we’re able to really plan and sell products for the customers we’re serving in the Fraser Valley,” Francine told the Observer. “There’s a confidence factor when we are able to buy fish right from the river and it’s in our hands as it travels…into our processing line and into the freezer.”

“We know the life of the fish and we know it hasn’t been sitting for a year or more in some storage facility.”

With the new facility and smoking equipment, Stó:lō Seafood Company can produce its own smoked salmon and salmon jerky in flavours like candy and wild blackberry.

The couple has built relationships with First Nations fishers up and down the coast, and while they will prioritize local supply, fish purchases will depend on season and availability. Still, for the most part, the sockeye salmon, halibut and other fish products the company produces and sells will have strong ties to Stó:lō landscapes, heritage and culture.

But improving local stock and controlling product quality aren’t the only reasons the facility is important.

Both Francine and Darwin have Stó:lō ancestry – Francine is originally from Sts’ailes, and Darwin from Cheam First Nation – Both of their families have long traditions of fishing the coastal waters and connections to the long fight for First Nations fishing rights against settler legislation that barred them from their ancestral tradition.

The processing facility is symbolic of the reclamation and stewardship of the people who have fished the river for hundreds of years, if not more.

At the grand opening ceremony Aug. 2, Darwin noted how it wasn’t until the 1990s that First Nations people in B.C. were able to start buying and selling fish legitimately through ‘pilot sales agreements.’

“My late uncle, Sam Douglas and many of our other chiefs here in this Stó:lō territory worked hard to make that happen,” he said. “This is a new business that’s about taking control of a resource that we feel we have a right to catch and to trade.”

“[We are] working to take a share of the marketplace in salmon and seafood because we feel that as First Nations we deserve that.”

READ: Boat of missing Stó:lo Grand Chief found in Fraser River, 17 years after death

The building that hosts Stó:lō Seafood Company isn’t exactly brand new. It’s on Scowlitz territory, where it was once operated as a federally-inspected fish processing facility before a fish shortage forced its closure. The couple is now renting the building and have renovated it to once again meet provincial, and hopefully soon, federal fish processing standards.

Scowlitz chief Andy Phillips praised the initiative of the couple.

“I imagine our ancestors are looking down and smiling that this is being realized again,” he said.

It took almost a year of hard work to get the doors open, but the facility is now impeccable, brightly lit, spotless and able to hold thousands of pounds of fish– all in all, a big change from running the Cheam Trading Post.

But the Douglases are ready for the challenge.

“We’ve gone to school for a little bit of business training and education, but we really learned business just like many other First Nations entrepreneurs – we’ve learned it through experience,” Darwin said. “And we find that First Nations people are very entrepreneurial people and they’re business-minded. We’ve always traded, and we continue to do that.”

“That’s what we’re doing now, just on a different scale.”

RELATED: First Nations band near Chilliwack files ‘landmark’ legal action against Canada, B.C.

Aside from improving control over quantity and quality of their product supply, the Douglases are prioritizing fair trade deals for the fishers they purchase from, and, as much as possible, keeping the fish in the community.

“Now we are able to offer local fishers fair trade for their products and then actually have it available to their neighbours and their families,” said Francine. “Since the get-go, that was always our mission with the trading post. We want to sell anything wild, anything local and anything fair trade.”

And Stó:lō Seafood Company is creating jobs too. The couple is looking for locals from Sts’ailes, Scowlitz, Harrison and other communities to come in and apply for work – no experience required.

The facility’s grand opening coincides with the super-sockeye run that fishers have waited four years for. The run estimate for Fraser sockeye this year is between seven and 13 million fish depending on the impact of the warming ocean and in-river conditions.

READ: Fraser sockeye numbers look promising for Chilliwack anglers, families and First Nations

With files from Jennifer Feinburg.

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