W̱SÁNEĆ Reef Net Project

The WSANEC reef net project is a revitalization initiative led by the youth of the W̱SÁNEĆ communities to reclaim a critical piece of W̱SÁNEĆ culture previously outlawed by the Canadian Government. 

This summer, W̱SÁNEĆ youth–supported by community members and elected council members from Tsartlip, Tseycum and Tsawout and a youth community representative from Pauquachin— launched a reef net, at SX̱IX̱ŦE near QENINIW̱ (what is now known as Poets Cove).

While the setting of the Reef Net itself didn’t take very long, it was months in the making. The project took place in multiple phases:

  • Research, construction and preparation
  • Learning the importance of, and history of, the reef net site
  • Finally, deployment. 

Research, construction and preparation:

Research and preparation included reviewing Chief Claxton’s reef net, the only other reef net set in Canadian Waters since the early 1900s

The construction was completed despite many obstacles. While the reef net used to be made of willow, the youth had to choose other materials due to the difficulty of harvesting this plant. Also, the COVID-19 pandemic caused countless project delays.

Preparation for launch included learning how to wind and store the net to ensure it didn’t get tangled. They also spent months training in the water, practicing working together to maneuver two canoes in unison.  The unique reef net technology has two main anchors with a lead, which acts like a false bottom or a funnel. This leads the salmon directly into the reef net, traditionally suspended between two canoes.

“I am amazed at the willingness of the youth to learn and follow through with no fear of failure. They listened to what they were taught and came together. We had the right people involved, these amazing youth. Some of them gave up good jobs to be a part of the project and experience different kinds of rewards”
– Eric Pelkey.

On the days leading up to the launch, the youth, Elders and supporters camped on the Pender Island reserve, adjacent to what was once a prominent W̱SÁNEĆ village site. While camping, the youth received many prayers and teachings about the importance of the reef net site, the village and the history of the reef net.

The History:

In W̱SÁNEĆ oral history, the reef net technology was a gift to the W̱SÁNEĆ people from the Salmon spirit through marriage. For thousands of years SX̱OLE, or reef net fishing, was an important harvesting and economic tool for W̱SÁNEĆ people. 

The reef net location, called SX̱IX̱ŦE on S,DÁYES / Pender Island just off QENINIW̱ / Poets Cove is just one of many reef net sites along the Gulf and San Juan Islands that follows the migration route of the Fraser River Sockeye.

According to oral tradition, a SIÁWE / powerful seer lived in the community at QENINIW̱ / Poets Cove. A SIÁWE is a very powerful person that has the ability to see into the future and predict it. This SIÁWE decided that the reef net and the location belonged to her when rightfully it belongs to the community. She and some of her followers chased the people who lived there away.

XÁLS (the Creator) saw what she was doing and he came down to the village to the people, where Poets Cove resort is located now. He told all the people to go the beach to SX̱IX̱ŦE / the reef net site, because he had something to show them. And all the people went and looked at the site. 

The Creator said, she’s breaking the laws of our people and now she will suffer the consequences.  He sent a thunderbolt and turned her to stone. ‘Now you see the consequences of breaking the laws. This is something for you to remember.’ Where you live now is called looking out and seeing something.’⠀⠀⠀⠀

The Launch:

The launch of a reef net is quite challenging and technical under any conditions, and this launch was no different. The youth were working together with very strong tides that day, all while their community cheered them on. 

Just before the launch, one of the youth participants in the project, Sarah Jim shared: “It doesn’t matter if we catch fish, because now we have the skills and training and the empowerment to do this on our own now” 

Another youth participant Aleena Lano shared: “I don’t know how to describe it, but halfway through when we were paddling, I could really feel that we all connect with our ancestors and just that that’s something that – to be out there in the water by to have that connection and to be doing what our ancestors did to be paddling out here, to use the reef net. It’s a very powerful experience, it felt good ”

The WLC will be facilitating another youth reef net project this summer.


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