A smiling Sam Douglas is pictured on the cover of ‘Hielamacha – A Tribute,’ a small book produced after his death. Douglas’s beloved boat (pictured) was pulled from the Fraser River Wednesday afternoon by his nephew – 17 years after the former chief drowned during a fishing trip.

Boat of missing B.C. chief found in river, 17 years after death

Sam Douglas drowned nearly two decades ago on the river he loved

Over 17 years after former Stó:lō Nation Grand Chief Sam Douglas went missing while fishing the Fraser River, his boat has been discovered partially submerged near Agassiz, just kilometres west of from Cheam Indian Band, where his family lives to this day.

On Wednesday afternoon, Douglas’s nephew, Rick Quipp – who had also been fishing on the Fraser the same day his uncle drowned – discovered his uncle’s boat on the north side of the channel, three to four kilometres downstream from the Agassiz Rosedale Bridge.

Sam Douglas’s family recognized his boat immediately, but any doubt was erased by the name etched into its side.

It was nearly two decades ago, in late May 2001, when 60-year-old Douglas took his small boat, his name etched onto its side, out on the river to fish for salmon, just like his ancestors had done for thousands of years and he himself had done his entire life.

It was a beautiful, sunny morning when he launched his boat from Cheam beach, went across the river and set his net out near the bridge.

But Sam Douglas never returned, and weeks of exhaustive searching brought no clues or peace of mind to his family and friends. In fact, there was no sign of Douglas or his boat until June 7, 2018.

Warrior on the Water

Douglas, known to many as ‘Hielamacha’ – Warrior on the Water – was a highly respected leader, acting as chief of Cheam First Nation from 1969 to 1992, and as a Stó:lō Grand Chief from 1993 until his death.

He was widely known across the region for his activism surrounding First Nations’ fishing rights – he often made headlines for pushing back against restrictive laws impinging the rights of Stó:lō people, whose traditional economy thrived on the catching and selling of Fraser River salmon.

He fought tirelessly, not only against policy that thwarted fishing access for his people, but against the ignorance churned by his unyielding convictions.

“The Cheam have long been leaders in the struggle to assert native fishing and land rights in B.C.,” he told the Chilliwack Progress in 2000. “We know who we are and we know what we own.”

The government – through the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) – slapped huge restrictions on the number of salmon First Nations people were allowed to catch for commercial use – drawing on antiquated policies from the 1888 Fisheries Act that limited Indigenous fisherman to a ‘food fishery’ for ceremonial and food purposes only.

In 2000, Douglas told the Chilliwack Progress that the B.C. Cabinet’s approval of protected areas in the Fraser River was “the final straw.”

“The government has failed to protect what little land the Cheam have left,” he said. “The Sto:lo are traditional fishermen and when agreements on that resource are made somebody’s going to suffer to a certain extent.”

It wasn’t until the late 1990s that Douglas, along with other Stó:lō Chiefs, persuaded the federal government to sign agreements allowing for the open sale of salmon harvested in the Stó:lō fishery – an enormous feat after the act had been outlawed over a century earlier.

Sam Douglas (far left) was Chief of Cheam for over two decades, and Grand Chief of Stó:lō Nation from 1993 until his death in 2001. Newspaper archives from the last 50 years detail his activism for Stó:lō fishing rights, as well as social, political and economic justice.

Douglas may have been known regionally for his role in Fraser River fishing disputes near the end of the 20th century, but the chief was a fearless advocate across the board, pushing for control over child welfare, health and traditional government in the early 90s and fighting tirelessly for social, economic and political justice for First Nations people in the area.

Douglas was critical of the media’s coverage of his actions and Stó:lō people in general, writing to the Progress in 1986 that, in his opinion, the paper’s editorial policy reported only on Indian people [sic] “when it involved confrontation and discord.”

“You have chosen to ignore the stories that have been positive in their approach to what native Indians are doing to enhance salmon stocks and their habitats, or how we, as Indian people, would like to have joint management in the river fisheries.”

“The issue is not as you see it – breaking the law,” he wrote.

“The issue is the allocation of fish to the commercial fishermen at the expense of the Indian fishery. The issue is the continual erosion of our aboriginal right to fish. The issue is the grim determination of the federal government to pursue a policy of Indian economic genocide.”

A lasting legend

On June 12, 2001, a day-long tribute to Douglas was held at Cheam Beach near the Agassiz Rosedale bridge. About 700 to 800 people – family, friends and officials from provincial, federal and First Nations governments – attended the ceremony to share memories of the revered leader.

Stó:lō elder Joe Aleck opened the tribute with prayer, mourning the loss of a man he called a ‘great leader’ and “a person who lived by the river and was taken by the river.”

A polished granite memorial once stood at Cheam Beach in permanent tribute to Douglas, but his family since removed it to protect it from vandalism and the elements.

Ruth Nicol’s two-part column in the Progress in 2001 says settlers knew Douglas as a radical, “but his people knew him as a pragmatist, visionary, father, brother, grandfather, friend and mentor.”

When Douglas’s family pulled his boat from the rushing current of the Fraser on Wednesday afternoon, there was a a peculiar, innate sense that a man – who had spent much of his life leading and fighting for his people – was sending a message to his loved ones, 17 years after he had been lost to the river he loved.

It may be best said in a poem by Gordon Mohs, printed in Hielamacha – A Tribute and translated from Halq’eméylem:

“Brother, gentleman, leader, Indian, warrior, spirit of the bear, that was Sam Douglas.”

“He was my friend, His spirit is with the river. With great respect, thank you Sam. It is done.”

A celebration of life is being held at the Cheam Band Hall/Office on Sunday, June 14, with dinner at 4 p.m. followed by a ceremony to retire Douglas’s boat. The celebration is open to the public.

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