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‘A cry for help’: Yukon River chinook salmon take priority in high-level talks on Parliament Hill

Yukon Days took place in Ottawa on Dec. 5 and 6
The chinook salmon numbers are updated on a board at the Whitehorse Rapids Fishladder as fish make their way around the Whitehorse Rapids Dam on the Yukon River on Aug. 6. (Dana Hatherly/Yukon News)

Cheyenne Bradley, 26, went to Ottawa to give a voice to the Yukon River chinook salmon.

Yukon political leaders descended on Canada’s capital on Dec. 5 and 6 for Yukon Days, a series of annual trilateral meetings between federal ministers, territorial ministers, the premier and chiefs. Several Yukon First Nations councillors, youth and elders also made the trip across the country to join in on talks.

Bradley, a land steward officer for Kwanlin Dün First Nation, was one of them.

In a Dec. 8 phone interview, Bradley explained how her ancestors relied on chinook salmon to help them survive in fish camps along the Yukon River.

Now she refrains from harvesting that species for the benefit of the fish and the people who rely on it. She has come to terms with the notion that she may never harvest a Yukon River chinook salmon.

Bradley lamented the loss of her community’s cultural connection to the wildlife.

“It’s really heartbreaking to see that we don’t have that anymore,” she said.

“It’s a cry for help.”

The Yukon River chinook salmon run is the longest run in the world at more than 2,000 kilometres.

In September, Marc Ross, the federal department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s manager of Yukon River operations, fisheries and treaties, confirmed this year’s Yukon River chinook salmon count is the lowest count on record since records started being tracked decades ago.

“The declining Yukon River chinook [salmon] is getting more and more scary every year,” Bradley said.

“It’s just getting worse and worse.”

Bradley is calling for more political support to protect the Yukon River chinook salmon and their habitat in the form of increased funding and capacity for First Nations.

The wooden Whitehorse Fish Ladder (front right) helps the Yukon River’s chinook salmon pass around Yukon Energy’s hydro dam in Whitehorse on Aug. 6. (Dana Hatherly/Yukon News)
The wooden Whitehorse Fish Ladder (front right) helps the Yukon River’s chinook salmon pass around Yukon Energy’s hydro dam in Whitehorse on Aug. 6. (Dana Hatherly/Yukon News)

Following up on the Yukon Forum, Yukon Days provides a chance for the Yukon government and Yukon First Nations to come together in expressing their shared priorities regarding the territory to the federal government.

In a Dec. 7 interview, Premier Sandy Silver said support for Indigenous languages, the substance use health emergency, land use planning, First Nations housing, the federal non-insured health benefits program and Yukon River chinook salmon were identified as joint priorities for this year’s meetings.

Silver said a highlight for him during Yukon Days was watching Bradley speak with Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Marc Miller about Yukon River chinook salmon.

“These are high-level conversations about policy,” Silver said.

“Cheyenne’s message is: This isn’t just about biology. This isn’t just about science. This is about culture. This is a way of life.”

Other topics that were not identified as joint priorities also came up in talks.

Silver said conversations around a $60-million shortfall to pay for the Atlin hydro power project involved looking at various ways to go about making up that funding gap.

“It’s easier for us to plan our priorities if we know what’s coming down the pipe when it comes to national considerations and priorities. We know that the federal government believes strongly in this project,” he said.

“We also know that, you know, there’s more costs, so being able to look at different options was a lot of the conversation for Atlin.”

Silver said he felt “very positive” about the way Yukon Days went. He didn’t feel like they were being rushed or interrupted despite how busy Ottawa was at the time.

Silver said Miller told him the idea of Yukon Days is catching on.

“Other jurisdictions are starting to follow our lead, and you’re starting to see more and more jurisdictions showing up with their ministers and chiefs to trilateral conversations, which didn’t happen before,” he said.

Silver continued on with bilateral meetings in Ottawa over the rest of the week. He met with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Dec. 9.

READ MORE: Lowest chinook salmon count on record in Yukon River sends wave of concern

READ MORE: Weak salmon run on Yukon River halts harvesting in First Nations

READ MORE: A way of life disappears along the Yukon River with the decline of the salmon

Contact Dana Hatherly at

Dana Hatherly

About the Author: Dana Hatherly

I’m the legislative reporter for the Yukon News.
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