The fish that changed everything

A Métis researcher's lifelong commitment to improving the future well-being of freshwater fish

drawing of a gold-coloured fish against a teal background

Zoe Todd, Shortjaw Cisco (Alberta Fish Series, ongoing), digital drawing (2021). Collection of the artist.

Photo: Zoe Todd

It’s a childhood memory etched deep in their mind. The moment Zoe Todd says a fish changed their life.

"I think everyone has a fish story and mine dates back to when I was just five years old at my family’s cabin on Alberta’s small Baptiste Lake,” recalls Todd, an associate professor of Indigenous Studies at Simon Fraser University, an artist and Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Governance and Freshwater Fish Futures. It was there, holding a brand-new fishing rod, lovingly crafted by their father to fit their small hands, Todd’s passion for fish was ignited.

"All summer I would go on the dock and cast out. Over and over, I would inevitably get caught in the weeds," Todd laughs.

Until one day, Todd says, that perseverance paid off. "There was a fish on the line," they recall. “It was a really big pike!”

Hooked for life

"That fish hooked me! That fish had me asking ‘Who’s living under there? What are they doing? Why can’t I see them?’ and those are the same questions that still animate me today,” Todd says. “That fish pulled me into this lifelong commitment to better their worlds and lives.”

person holding an Arctic char standing on a frozen waterway

Canada Research Chair Zoe Todd holding landlocked Arctic char, Dennis Lakes, Paulatuk (2012).

Photo: Sandra Thrasher

Todd, a Red River Métis person, and their team of more than a dozen Indigenous and non-Indigenous graduate and undergraduate students, community leaders, scientists, artists, writers, journalists, environmentalists, interdisciplinary academics and international partners have established the Institute for Freshwater Fish Futures. The collective is based on the principle that every part of Canada is a “fish place.” Their research, primarily centred around lakes and rivers throughout the Prairies, explores the role of Indigenous knowledges, stories, science and laws in protecting fish in the past, present and future.

“We have Canadian laws that are incompatible with fish flourishing in our lakes and rivers in the Prairies. If you look at Indigenous laws, fish and Indigenous Peoples flourished together for tens of thousands of years in these same lakes and rivers,” says Todd, adding that fish are an integral part of Indigenous culture and well-being.

“It’s hard to encapsulate how critical the fish decline is because the collapses have happened so rapidly that each generation doesn’t quite understand how much we’ve lost,” Todd says, blaming the drop in fish populations on overfishing, climate change, urban development and the oil, gas, forestry and mining industries. “What we do know is if we don’t take the fish decline seriously, we face a scary future, because if the fish aren’t doing well in the waters that we rely on then humans won’t be doing well either. First Nations and Métis in Alberta have raised concerns about deformed, sick, and infected fish in the province for a long time now.”

Restor(y)ing hope

Todd, and their colleagues, take what they call a restor(y)ing approach in their research, like their recent project examining the decline of the Bull Trout population in Alberta, which has plummeted by an alarming 50 percent over the past few decades. The team uses Indigenous stories, knowledges and science in creative ways to educate the broader public and inform policy makers about what they see as a crisis in our watersheds.

“Our work through the Institute blurs the boundaries between data collection and knowledge mobilization,” Todd explains. “We sit with Indigenous Peoples and listen to their stories and with their permission use whatever tools we can, like art and podcasts, to share that information in a way that can be understood by the general public. We want all people in Canada to imagine a world where these fish capacities are turned around.”

researcher crouching on rocks in waterway recording sound

Institute for Freshwater Fish Futures co-founder, AM Kanngieser, recording sound in a waterway in the Pacific. Undated.

Photo: AM Kanngieser

Todd’s Canada Research Chair research program builds on the work of the Institute for Freshwater Fish Futures by exploring how to protect fish and human well-being in Canadian and international watersheds using diverse Indigenous methodologies. Ultimately, they and their research team hope to come up with new ways to study and support the complex relationships between Indigenous sovereignty and freshwater fish well-being. 

Connecting across continents

Todd co-founded the Institute for Freshwater Fish Futures with AM Kanngieser, Janelle Baker, Ozayr Saloojee, Karen Lutsky, Émélie Desrochers-Turgeon, Lorelei Hanson, and others, in 2018. An example of the Institute’s goal to mobilize knowledge at the local and global levels is Kanngieser’s collaboration with Mere Nailatikau and other partners in the Pacific to examine the role Indigenous knowledges play in mitigating environmental disasters and climate change for fish in parts of the Pacific. This “Oceanic Refractions” team recently showcased their findings in an immersive art exhibit in Berlin. As part of their Canada Research Chair program, Todd plans to help bring that same exhibit to Canada and connect it to local knowledge.

“We should be learning from what Indigenous knowledge holders in other parts of the world are doing and we should give them an opportunity, on their terms, to use creative means like art and philosophy, to bring those stories to the wider public,” adds Todd. “Our work is slowly creating a space to have those hard conversations and imagine what the fish future could look like if we do this right.”

Imagining a world with fish governance

Todd hopes their research helps people and policy makers see fish, not as a commodity, but as relatives and kin, capable of teaching us valuable lessons about resilience. Specifically, Todd wants federal and provincial governments to centre Indigenous governments and sovereignty in fish conservation, fish markets, and riparian protection.

"We need to recognize fish as self-government entities that humans come into respectful relationships with. As my collaborator David Parent says, we must move from governing fish to fish governance," says Todd.

“Indigenous leader, advocate and researcher Leroy Little Bear invites us to ask the fish what we should do. I invite people to do the same. As he says, fish have figured out the scientific formula to survive on the planet for half a billion years, so they have things to teach us,” Todd adds.

“The fish have the answers, we just need to listen. That is at the heart of what I do.”

Want to learn more?

Check out The Bull Trout Show, a series of podcasts that tells the story of the bull trout and the decades of efforts to recover this native species. Go here to learn more about Zoe Todd’s art and Critical Indigenous Fish Philosophy.