Growing a cauliflower can bring childlike joy to a grown man’s face. At least, it did for John Skulsh, who still talks about his first garden-grown vegetable.
“I lifted it up,” said Skulsh, who hails from the Gitxsan Nation. “What a feeling that was! You know, the only time I’d picked up cauliflower was from Safeway, wrapped in cellophane.”
Skulsh is among the many residents of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside who steward the Urban Aboriginal Community Kitchen Garden, a half-acre of fertile land at the UBC farm. The project aims to shrink the distance between the garden and the grocery store, while celebrating Aboriginal traditions around food in the context of the city.
For many involved, this means cultivating a more direct relationship with what they eat—a process that can begin at any age.
“Even some of the seniors didn’t know how things like radish grew,” said Cathy Goupil, a seasoned gardener from the L’il’wat Nation, “They’d never seen one without a rubber band.”
Goupil is one of the garden’s founding matriarchs, affectionately called the grannies, who have worked with the project from its beginning in 2005. Since then, roughly 500 people have spent time at the garden. Some actively work on small projects while others visit for large celebratory feasts, like the Blessing of the Land.
Waking up indigenous knowledge
On a Monday afternoon, many local goods were scattered around the farm’s indoor kitchen table, where a small group of community members talked, laughed and worked together to prepare a meal.
Granny Goupil explained the healing benefits of XwU’sum (pronounced “hoshum “). It is a traditional berry-based drink that strengthens the immune system and cleanses the body.
Louis Joseph, a Native Elder from the Tlowitsis Nation , had handpicked the blackberries in the salad dressing. Rob Morgan, a Gitxsan Downtown Eastside resident, had carried in a bucket of freshly harvested herbs from the nearby garden.
“We wake up old traditions and indigenous knowledge systems,” said Project Coordinator Mary Holmes, “and we find a place for them both at the university and within the larger community.”
Aboriginal culture in the city
The garden plot belongs to the Musqueam Nation, who shares the space with other Aboriginal people in Vancouver.
“Access to land is a huge issue for First Nations folk living in the city,” said Holmes.
Nearly half of all Aboriginal Canadians now live in urban centers, according to a new study by the Environics Institute. Its research shows that many indigenous city dwellers see the city as “a venue for creative development of Aboriginal culture” and roughly 60 per cent feel they can maintain cultural ties in an urban setting.
The study highlights Vancouver as a city in which “residents are both more aware of Aboriginal cultural activities in their city and participate in them more frequently.”
Community members at the garden learn about each other’s traditions. They sit down and talk about what to plant, what to eat, and how to cook the meal itself.
“There are very different ways to prepare clam chowder,” said volunteer and UBC student Jocelyn Greer. “Trying to find a happy medium is very interesting to watch, but it always turns out delicious in the end.”
Seeds of change
Community members bring all kinds of skills and struggles to the table.
Residential school survivors, the mentally ill, and troubled youth, for instance, find out about the program through its parent organization, the Vancouver Native Health Society, and its community partners.
Skulsh came to program through the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users. To him, the garden is a sanctuary.
“All you see is trees surrounding you,” he said, “You don’t see the hustle and bustle of the Downtown Eastside … No drugs, no alcohol.”
In this space, many people plant the seeds of change.
“It is a healing garden,” said Skulsh, “Being out there clears your mind, makes you energized, makes you happy.”