Around 30 of us sit in a circle on the carpet, shoeless and mostly cross-legged, like school children, waiting for the chance to speak. We have gathered in this room—somewhat dimmed, somewhat hidden—at the CRD headquarters, to take part in a “blanket exercise,” a workshop that explores the history of colonization on the Island and its food systems.
Instead of a talking stick, attendees—mostly women—clutch an item of food we were asked to bring. Participants pass around Tupperware containers filled with Ukrainian and Gaelic delicacies and describe time spent in kitchens with their grandmothers. A few people brought nothing and mention a family culinary tradition of Kraft Dinner—and the gap in their heritage that represents.
As we travel around the circle, I become apprehensive. I fidget with my item, place it behind my back, cover it with the blanket I was also asked to bring. I wonder if I should pretend I brought nothing and speak instead of my grandmother’s inventive thriftiness. But it isn’t that I have nothing, it’s that I feel like I have too much. Or that what I have isn’t truly mine to claim.
When it’s my turn, I reveal a jar of canned sockeye salmon and speak about my connection to it, how that connection now feels complicated, and what I hope to do about it.
UNDERSTANDING OUR HISTORY
In the winter of 2012, I remember being online (mostly avoiding homework) when #IdleNoMore exploded onto our national screens and scene. Ever since, I’ve tried to listen to Indigenous people more and learn about the real history of our country.
Like many settler (i.e., non-Indigenous) Canadians, I was never taught much about this history. I grew up fishing and harvesting clams and other seafood directly from the ocean in Nuučaan̓uł (Nuu-cha-nulth), Coast Salish, and Kwakwaka’wakw territories all around the Island. I never thought about the histories of these lands and waters. My granddad was a commercial fisherman and catching fish was just what we did.
But the more I learn, the more I realize how privileged I was—and still am. Many coastal First Nations communities can no longer access traditional food lands, and their youth don’t learn how to tend to and harvest their native foods. I now wonder how I can support First Nations communities as they restore their food systems.
So I jumped at the chance to do the blanket exercise offered through the CRD, especially for its focus on food. After our initial circle, participants spread out the blankets we had brought, covering nearly the whole floor, then stood in the middle of each. Two facilitators—one representing Indigenous people and one, settlers—read cards that illustrated the pre-contact life of First Nations communities. These cards described how their lives and rights were affected during colonization, while still highlighting their resistance.
One by one, the blankets were folded, folded again, or taken away altogether. The people who occupied disappearing areas were told to move and share another person’s blanket. Some were told to sit in the corner; no longer participants, they represented those killed by smallpox and other diseases, those who never made it home from residential schools, and others who did not survive the trauma of the schools and government policies. The exercise was meant to help participants experience, in a very small way, the tragedy of Canadian history.
DOING THE WORK
Even for those of us who want to take part, our learning too often relies on the emotional labour of Indigenous teachers. At the CRD workshop, our facilitator was Jon Rabeneck. While more withdrawn on that day, he is friendly and open when I meet him for coffee a few months later.
Rabeneck is Snuneymuxw, a Coast Salish nation whose territory includes the city of Nanaimo, and works as a Coast Salish community engagement coordinator with the First Nations Health Authority. Growing up off reserve, he saw the disparities between his situation and those of his family on reserve and knew he wanted to help his community. He now lives on the Saanich Peninsula with his W̱JOȽEȽP (Tsartlip) partner, Ashlee Cooper, and their son, Nick. He has co-led more than a dozen exercises over the last year, but the experience is still challenging.
“Those feelings of anger and frustration, they’re still there,” says Rabeneck. He can often rattle through the script and have many participants understand but still meets resistance in the final circle from people who ask for definitions and sources or want Rabeneck to do the work for them. “Some of them don’t get it, and some of them might get it but have questions or put it back onto you and be like, ‘Well, give me answers now.’ And that’s not for me to work through, man. That’s your stuff.”
Rabeneck decompresses after workshops by taking the rest of the day off and spending time with Tsawout Elder Eydie Pelkey. “At the end of the day, you’re talking about, ‘What’s the net gain?’ You’re talking to 30 folks about a topic that they may have never broached before,” he says. “I’d rather do it than not do it. If the cost is me writing off an afternoon, then that’s what it is.”
In the blanket circle and at many other social gatherings, people talk about how food can bring us together. But when I think about how we access food, I also picture a flashpoint, a source of conflict, a space that reveals how unequal our society is—specially clear in the context of Canadian colonialism
“I was never able to go down to the river to fish or to harvest,” says Rabeneck. While he didn’t grow up harvesting traditional foods, he has started now that he lives in the community. “There’s a select few of us who are hunting, who are fishing and providing a lot for our families. It’s a stark reality of the current situation with colonization.”
The biggest barriers he sees to Indigenous people reconnecting with their food systems are government regulations, dwindling fish stocks and wildlife, and a lack of resources. He spends time with youth who have never fished, harvested, or hunted. It takes energy and resources to bring them out, and some youth are wary of the experience, but it’s worth the effort. “Just the joy and the absolute energy that comes from some of the kids when they do get their first fish or whatever it is, it just fills your cup. It’s like, ‘All right, this will do me for a year now.’”
GROWING YOUNG STEWARDS
Rabeneck’s partner Ashlee Cooper is also getting her hands dirty in the work of decolonization and resurgence—literally. She works in W̱SÁNEĆ territory as a language teacher at SȾÁUTW̱ SENĆOŦEN, ÁUTWW—the Tsawout language nest—and is an instructor and the education coordinator for the PEPÁḴEṈ HÁUTW̱ native plant nursery at the LÁU, WELNEW Tribal School in W̱JOȽEȽP.
The nursery hosts every class from the school once a week for an hour, teaching students how to propagate, plant, tend, and harvest native plants, along with the plants’ SENĆOŦEN names and traditional uses. Organizers hope to expand the popular program to include longer visits and after-school options.
“We have a lot of keeners who don’t want to go back to school, who want to keep helping, getting their hands dirty,” says Cooper. “We’ve realized they have a lot of purpose when they do that, and you can feel their sense of pride that they take in learning to be stewards of the land.”
Cooper has been developing lesson plans about native plants and the SENĆOŦEN language—and not just for teachers at the Tribal School. “I have a couple of friends who’ve just gotten into the education system,” says Cooper, “and with the change of curriculum, it says to incorporate all this First Nations education, science, and all of that, but they don’t know where to start.”
The PEPÁḴEṈ HÁUTW̱ nursery has also partnered with other local groups to work with students and youth to restore traditional village sites. At SṈIDȻEȽ, otherwise known as Tod Inlet, they are working with the SeaChange Marine Conservation Society to undo years of contamination from a cement plant and other industrial activities. The place is named after blue grouse, a main traditional food source that no longer nests in W̱SÁNEĆ territory. Here, the facilitators and local youth have dug up clay and cement and replaced it with rocks and sand, in hopes that eelgrass will return, followed by salmon and other native species.
By quickly learning the knowledge of native plants, the youth feel empowered to make change—which inspires Cooper. “You’re seeing a lot of youth within our own community who are taking the initiative to step up and say, ‘This isn’t right. These plants shouldn’t be here. They’re doing more harm than good.’”
One of the places that has been on Cooper’s mind of late is Maber Flats, originally known as ȾIKEL. Now home to many family farms, the area was once a productive wetland where W̱SÁNEĆ peoples tended to wapato, or SḴÁUŦ, an indigenous potato, and harvested from the abundant duck population. “Our Elders used to say that the skies would black out from so many ducks,” says Cooper, “that we could just throw a net in the air and catch our dinner.”
Recently, Cooper’s group was asked by the district of Central Saanich to restore a small part of the flats near Kersey Road to a natural wetland with native plants. But Cooper worries that local attempts by farmers to force the municipality to install a drainage system will nullify these efforts. “We have a lot of ducks that go there,” she says. “We also have things like cattail, stinging nettle, and so many other things and materials that we could be using this plot of land for—that it was traditionally used for.”
Cooper recognizes the irony of draining a wetland that can produce native food to grow introduced foods. But she also sees a way forward through the agricultural conflict. She hopes that First Nations communities can partner with Silver Rill and other local farms to start native crops like ELILE (salmonberries), S₭EḰĆES (red huckleberry), and, of course, wapato. “What’s going to grow naturally in that territory? How can we help them? How can they help us?”
Farmers could even get together and map harvestable areas on or around their farmland to share with local First Nations communities or just leave the native plants for those who are interested—like salmonberries or trailing blackberries that already grow in the ditches—instead of removing them.
Cooper also knows local chefs who are interested in working with native foods but don’t have the supply or knowledge of where to find them. Such small steps could help Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities to start seeing each other. “We’re both here,” she says. “We both love food.”
A RESURGENT PEOPLE
Resurgence in Indigenous food systems and language revitalization go hand-in-hand. Cooper didn’t grow up with her language, other than a SENĆOŦEN class at Bayside Middle School that was mostly dictation, but she reconnected with it a few years ago after hearing an uncle speak at the Royal B.C. Museum. “He was shedding importance on it and sharing his personal experience with it and that moment just really clicked for me.”
She enrolled in the community-based Aboriginal Language Revitalization Certificate, a partnership between UVic’s Continuing Studies and the Saanich Adult Education Centre. She now speaks SENĆOŦEN every day and is raising her son Nick to speak it, too. “It’s a magical experience,” says Cooper.
Cooper grew up “really shy” and “awkward” in her community, so learning the language has changed the way she relates to her territory and people. W̱SÁNEĆ means “emerging people,” which relates to a great flood that happened on the Peninsula 10,000 years ago and the mountains that emerged as the waters receded. “The more I understand the language, the more I’m seeing what my ancestors saw,” she says. “Even though so much of our landscape has changed, it helps to make you feel like you belong and like you’re connected, which is something that’s important for our community and especially our youth.”
Cooper wants to start doing “guerrilla native plant gardening” in public spaces. One of her favourite plants is DEḰEṈ (thimbleberry), which tastes like a ripe wild raspberry. A few local nurseries work with native plants, such as Russell Nurseries and Saanich Native Plants. Cooper appreciates how, after collecting seeds from the territory, the nurseries grow crops on their own property for future seed harvests. “They’re shining a light on that for people to learn to do it themselves, and they’re ensuring native plant seeds are available to the public.”
She and her colleague, Judith Lynn Arney, work with resident Elder Earl Claxton Jr. They are excited to start reintroducing plants that haven’t been seen in their territory for decades, such as devil’s club and Indian consumption plant, and helping elders to harvest these traditional plants in pots and raised beds.
“The main food people know about is camas,” says Cooper. “There were hundreds of other foods in our territory that we thrived on, just as much as camas, that don’t have a voice, that have been lost.” She relies heavily on Saanich Ethnobotany by Dr. Nancy Turner and Richard Hebda in her work. “That book’s like my bible.”
NATIVE PLANTS AS DECOLONIZATION
So how do we decolonize our green spaces? Cooper says replacing invasive plants with native ones is a good start. That’s a lesson she emphasizes to attendees at the permaculture classes she speaks with at the Horticulture Centre of the Pacific, whether they are gardening for themselves or for clients. “If anybody wants to help with reconciliation and make a difference,” she says, “planting a native plant, that’s decolonizing, that’s resisting right there.”
Cooper wants people to think of plants as more than objects for personal enjoyment and instead focus on the complete native ecosystems being lost. “Right now a lot of people are waking up to that who want to be active allies,” she says, “to help and voice their opinions and mention what’s going on in our communities.”
Cooper sees this new attitude emerging in many Saanich parks, such as freshly planted endangered Hemlock trees at a recently restored creek area on Lindsey Street. “The fact that the municipality sees the importance of that and instead of planting just anything that needs water, they’re planting things that are in a sustainable environment, I find that really exciting,” she says. “Things like that can really open up everything and be a good start to a relationship.”
TRUTH BEFORE RECONCILIATION
For Rabeneck, it’s impossible for settlers and Indigenous peoples to have a discussion about reconciliation without acknowledging that cities such as Victoria were built on the displacement of Indigenous people and that current residents benefit from this colonization. Any move towards justice has to account for our shared history. These aren’t easy conversations to have—both with others and with ourselves. But change is never easy, or comfortable, and that’s okay.
Part of growing is imagining other ways of being that don’t rest on displacement. A few days after the CRD exercise, I attended a debrief with a smaller group. We were given children’s building blocks and asked to first build a replica of the dysfunctional food system we have now. Then we used the blocks to imagine an alternative, along with the society that could be created around it.
Our group constructed this new society in a circle. We included protected waterways and spaces for native foods to flourish. We added models for shared governance, with no one set of blocks above or below the other but with lanes for open communication back and forth, and—most importantly—blocks representing equal access to food. Our imagined future might seem like a distant dream when there’s so much to dismantle, but it’s one place to start. ♦