Fisheries guardian Rodney Alex steers his pickup truck along a narrow dirt road that trails alongside the Qamsipuk River in Eskasoni, Unama’ki.
“This is a good place to stop,” says Alex, who works for the Eskasoni Fish and Wildlife Commission (EFWC).
He hops out of the truck and leads the way down to where he and his team are working to restore the river. By hand, they install stone structures called deflectors along the sides of the river that deepen and narrow the flow of water to create small pools — ideal breeding grounds for fish.
“My main objective part is to see this brook running like back in 20 years ago, to bring the fish back,” says Alex. “We want to see people fishing back at it again. That’s my main objective.”
It’s early May, and the kaqpesaw, or smelts, are running.
Tom Johnson, Eskasoni Fish and Wildlife executive director, recalls hearing stories of how the Qamsipuk River would be black with plamu, or salmon.
“I’d like to see the river to the state it was,” says Johnson. “I’d like to see a black pool of salmon just migrating up. And if we can get to that point, I would be happy.”
Plamu in Nova Scotia is classified as endangered by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada.
Mi’kmaw Elder Ernest Johnson has lived in Eskissoqnik since the 1940s, when the plamu were plentiful in Qamsipuk River. He says salmon is an indicator of the health of an ecosystem and impacts biodiversity.
“It tells us if the water is OK or not OK. Very important that if the salmon is going up, you know, when they know they’re viable, they’re doing all right, we know that everything is all right,” says Ernest.
Drone footage courtesy of Nita Denny, Eskasoni Fish and Wildlife Commission
The Qamsipuk River runs down a steep hillside, through the Mi’kmaw community of Eskasoni and flows into Bras d’Or Lake.
Eskasoni Fish and Wildlife is working to make the watershed an Indigenous Protected and Conserved Area (IPCA). It’s part of a federally funded initiative for Indigenous-led conservation efforts across the country.
For Eskasoni, the goal is to prevent flooding and promote biodiversity. Johnson says the IPCA is about much more than plamu. He sees it as an opportunity to re-establish the connection between land and language.
“A lot of the words that were embedded between the language and the land are being lost,” says Johnson. “Hopefully, within the next few years, we’ll have language camps that can occur in these IPCAs, identifying certain tree species, certain plants that the Mi’kmaq use for medicines, certain animals that, you know, were important to the culture, certain materials that were used to build wikwuoms, sweat lodges, longhouses.”
For Ernest Johnson, the IPCA is something that should have happened a century ago.
“I think it’s a wonderful thing because now it involves the youth. And the education is not coming down from the top, but more organic,” he says. “We understand things by observation and can use education to help deal with the issues and needs for the ecosystem.”
Back at the river, Rodney Alex wades in and points out an area where the deflectors installed last year are doing their job. The clear water pools and swirls around the rocks.
“I was talking to an Elder and the Elder told me, ‘Just leave it the way it is. Let Mother Nature take its course.’ But it hasn’t been working lately,” says Alex. “If we don’t do it, there’s going to be nothing here in this brook, eventually.”
Video by Lauren Phillips, with files from David Shuman