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What will it take to make traditional foods thrive again?

Skeena River sockeye have declined 75% since 1913. Woodland caribou have declined by more than half in the past century. But with the right resources, First Nations are bringing ancestral foods back from the brink

This story is part of Nourish, a series about how First Nations are fuelling their people with sustainably harvested, healthy and culturally safe foods amid a changing climate

Before colonization, woodland caribou were “a convenient food” for West Moberly First Nations, Chief Roland Willson says.

“If you needed to eat, you knew that you could always go and get a caribou. They were always there,” he says. “You could always catch a fish and feed your family or feed yourself with it.”

Today, the West Moberly and Saulteau First Nations cannot harvest caribou because they are endangered. They are working together to bring the caribou they rely on back from the brink of extinction.

“We need to grow the herds and get them to the point where we can now sustainably harvest caribou,” Willson says.

Traditionally, West Moberly harvested in seasonal rounds, and the wellness of their non-human relatives was always front of mind. That cycle has been disrupted — when they can’t harvest caribou, more pressure is put on moose and elk. And as they go without harvesting caribou, the passing of Traditional Knowledge about their seasonal rounds is also disrupted, Willson says.

Colonization drastically changed the landscape, decimating a range of important species. Residential schools and bans on cultural activities, such as potlatching, disrupted the transmission of knowledge, and assimilative policies banned First Nations harvesting and cultivation practices and confined people to reserves, restricting access to traditional foods. 

These colonial policies created an ongoing legacy of barriers to First Nations accessing healthy and traditional foods. Communities are dependent on imported groceries, which are increasingly hard for many to afford as inflation climbs. Today, around half of all Indigenous households in the province are food-insecure, a rate that is four times higher than non-Indigenous households.

The ongoing impacts of colonization are colliding with the dangers of climate change, as communities grapple with floods and wildfires destroying or cutting off access to food while biodiversity continues to plummet. Facing increasingly urgent crises, Indigenous communities and scientists are looking to historic and modern technologies to ramp up local food production and restore access to traditional foods.

Illustrated map depicts the coast of B.C. with green land and pink and yellow water, with illustrations of salmon, clams, caribou and camas on round leather patches with beaded edges.
B.C. is home to the most biodiversity in all of Canada. It’s also home to more species at risk than any other province or territory, with more than 1,900 species, sub-species and ecosystems officially at risk of extinction. Illustration: Karlene Harvey / The Narwhal

But the future is not just about food security, it’s about food sovereignty — the ability for a community to grow, harvest and exercise jurisdiction over food.

Sovereignty means being able to push back on legislation, regulations and policies that don’t respect Aboriginal Rights and Title, Tyrone McNeil, president of the Stó:lō Tribal Council and chair of the Emergency Planning Secretariat, says.

“Food sovereignty gives me the ability to identify certain valleys within our traditional territory and say, ‘They can’t be logging up here for 20 years because we are up there picking all the berries, the roots, the herbs and the medicines.’ ”

For each First Nation, the pursuit of food sovereignty will reflect the soil, trees, animals, water, climate and elevation of the lands they steward. Across the lands we now call British Columbia, First Nations are launching community gardens, funding food cellars and pantries, training people in stewardship and leading habitat restoration.

With many species already struggling, what will it take to bring key food sources back from the brink and ensure they can provide abundance in the future?

Caribou

First Nations have relied on caribou for thousands of years, but many are no longer able to harvest caribou to support their communities, because there simply aren’t enough left.

The province estimates woodland caribou have decreased by more than half in the past century, from an estimated 40,000 to roughly 17,000 today.

Woodland caribou have declined from an estimated 40,000 to roughly 17,000 today, according to the province. Illustration: Karlene Harvey / The Narwhal

Logging roads and seismic lines (logged corridors used for transport and surveys) have made it easier for wolves to prey on caribou, along with declining snowpack: woodland caribou thrive in deep snow, while wolves find it easier to hunt at lower elevations with less snow. 

The southern mountain population of woodland caribou, which includes the Klinse-Za herd, is listed as threatened under the federal Species At Risk Act. There were only 16 Klinse-Za caribou left in 2014. That’s when the West Moberly and Saulteau First Nations took recovery into their own hands. They built a maternal pen where pregnant cows and their new calves would be protected from predators so the herd could grow. 

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While the herd has a long way to go, conservation scientists were rejoicing when the Klinse-Za caribou grew to more than 100 strong, including wildlife scientist and researcher Clayton Lamb. Willson put that number in context, letting them know that his community would barely get a single meal from a sustainable harvest of two to three caribou.

Provincial and federal governments “are interested in stabilizing the current population and stopping them from declining. So in that sense, for them, they’ve met their goal of protecting that species,” Willson, who co-authored the study, explains. 

“B.C. and Canada want to stabilize the herd; we want to grow the herd back to the point we can eat caribou before we die.” 

Lamb says this stuck with him, so he worked with the nations to quantify exactly how plentiful the Klinse-Za herd would have to be for them to harvest enough caribou for 15 meals for every family over one winter, without fear of hurting the herd. They found the herd would need to be 3,000 strong. When they wrote their study, it sat at 114. In 2023, the herd increased to 138.

The Klinse-Za herd would have to increase over twenty times in order to provide 15 meals to every West Moberly and Saulteau family over the course of one winter without conservation concerns.
A visualization of 3,000 caribou, which can provide 15 meals to the West Moberley and Saulteau First Nations, compared to the 114 caribou that exist today in the herd.

Lamb says framing the data this way shows the gap between a western science perspective and an Indigenous Knowledge perspective. “Those caribou would have been completely lost without [the West Moberly and Saulteau First Nations],” Lamb says. “They are on a path to recover them. Every year, there’s more opportunity for a greater harvest. But it puts in perspective that there is a major gap between recovery as defined by species at risk legislation, and what would be a culturally meaningful abundance of wildlife.”

In 2020, the West Moberly and Saulteau First Nations signed two caribou conservation agreements with B.C. and Canada. But Willson says not much has changed — and as long as the nations can’t harvest caribou, they are in perpetual treaty infringement because they are signatories of Treaty 8, which includes a promise not to interfere with the nations’ way of life.

He points out the majority of caribou habitat has been disrupted, and much of it is still being logged and threatened by mining proposals. “There’s not enough land out there to grow the population back so that we could have a sustainable harvest and not be infringed,” he says.

“Having access to abundant wild food that’s in close proximity within your traditional territory goes beyond ensuring food security, it’s about cultural integrity and self-determination,” Mateen Hessami, a hunter, ecologist and tribal member of the Wyandotte Nation of Oklahoma, says. Hessami co-authored the study with Lamb and Willson.

“Creating more wild food is just so important. Because we need people in those rural communities, we need jobs, we need guardians. Because if no one’s out on the land, cherishing it and utilizing it, then no one’s going to care about it.”

Salmon

About half of Pacific salmon populations are in some state of decline, according to the Pacific Salmon Foundation. The foundation reports Fraser River sockeye declined 54 per cent in the past decade compared to all preceding years. A 2019 study found the second biggest sockeye run — Skeena River sockeye — has declined 75 per cent since 1913.

Salmon migration has been majorly impacted by development, especially in estuaries, which are integral in salmon’s migration between fresh and salt water as a place to rest. Throughout the province, habitat has been blocked, paved over, flooded and destroyed.

According to Watershed Watch Salmon Society, 85 per cent of historic salmon habitat in the lower Fraser River is inaccessible to salmon.
Illustration of salmon.

Experts identify overharvesting, sea lice from fish farms, warming waters and habitat degradation from both climate change and industrialization as major contributors to the decline.

Now, many First Nations are harvesting far less for their families than they used to. Some have had to pause harvest completely when stocks are low. 

A big piece of the problem, according to Will Atlas, a salmon watershed scientist at the Wild Salmon Centre, is commercial fisheries harvest thousands of salmon from the ocean, early in their migration. They’re guided by the federal government’s projections — but there’s no surefire way to know exactly how many salmon will actually return to spawn in that system. 

Atlas has been working with First Nations across B.C. to revitalize traditional fisheries, which often took place close to spawning grounds. Traditional fishing technologies are more selective, and allow for detailed, in-the-moment monitoring of how a salmon run is doing, like river weirs and fish wheels, which block or capture fish close to their spawning grounds. These allow fishers to see how many fish of each run are passing through, and keep some and let others go to spawn according to how well each run is doing. More than a dozen B.C. First Nations are also adding artificial intelligence technology to help monitor the fish in real time.

“It’s really kind of a case study and how First Nations and their partners are kind of leveraging modern technology and ancient systems of management to create a greater degree of food sovereignty,” Atlas says.

Illustration of a single salmon.
About half of Pacific sockeye populations are in some state of decline. But research also shows that with the right habitat, fish populations can still persist and increase. Illustration: Karlene Harvey / The Narwhal

There is evidence that with the right habitat, salmon populations can persist or increase. Atlas led a study looking at 80 Chinook populations ranging from California’s Sacramento River to the Fraser River in B.C., and found 70 per cent had declined in the past 50 years. But they saw hope in other populations that had remained stable or recovered. Salmon populations were more stable in watersheds where cold water was more reliable, or where habitat restoration and dam removal had taken place. Where fish passage was protected or enhanced, fish were faring better. 

As part of the fish monitoring pilot project, Atlas is working with First Nations, in partnership with Fisheries and Oceans Canada and the Pacific Salmon Foundation, using drones to identify cool water zones that can act as refuge for fish. He says their goal isn’t just gathering data, but “actually turning that into food on people’s plates.”

Clams

Once supported by whales, herring, salmon and shellfish, the Tsleil-Waututh Nation now faces challenges accessing these traditional foods. Overharvesting and higher marine traffic have impacted populations, along with drastic habitat degradation. Burrard Inlet, which provided much of their food, was dredged and polluted. Ports were built and beaches were eradicated.

An important species for the Tsleil-Waututh Nation is clams. The nation estimates that prior to colonization, the beaches of Burrard Inlet may have yielded about 6.25 million kilograms of harvestable butter clams annually. 

“Even in my time, our families used to gather and go down to the beach and it would be like a seafood bake,” Michael George, a cultural advisor with Tsleil-Waututh Nation, recently told The Narwhal. “We just called it lunch.”

Illustration of two people clam digging.
The Tsleil-Waututh Nation organized a harvest of 30 kilograms of clams in 2022, which was a success since sometimes the water is too contaminated for any harvest. But it’s a fraction of the former abundance. The beaches of Burrard Inlet may have supported about 6.25 million kilograms of harvestable butter clams before contact. Illustration: Karlene Harvey / The Narwhal

But since the region was industrialized, Burrard Inlet has lost 945 hectares of intertidal habitat, and 700 contaminants have been found in the water. At least 24 pollutants detected in animal tissue — including heavy metals like arsenic, lead and mercury, pesticides and known carcinogens — are found at levels that make it dangerous for people to eat most of the food in these waters.

The community has been working tirelessly to monitor the water, restore habitat and harvest what they can. In 2022, they finalized a stewardship plan with the province to restore the Indian River (xʔəl̓ilwətaʔɬ) watershed, with the hopes that someday their nation can enjoy an abundant annual clam harvest again.

Cultivating foods

The urban sprawl around Vancouver extends east up the Fraser Valley, and shifts into rangeland and farmland as you follow the river. In the Okanagan, people grow fruits like cherries, grapes, berries and crops including grains, ginseng and livestock feed. While Indigenous food growers are currently a small proportion in the agricultural sector across Canada, they are the fastest growing population in the sector: since 1996, their numbers have grown by 56 per cent, while the total number of agricultural operators has fallen by 30 per cent.

But the warm, arid climate, which can be so productive for food, also has the potential to drive its destruction. The region has become hotter and drier, leading to drought and increased risk of catastrophic wildfires. The prohibition of cultural burns, which were used by First Nations to manage forests and cultivate food species until they were outlawed in 1874, has contributed to the growing threat of wildfires. These fires have been worsening in speed and scale, putting traditional foods and food growing operations at risk. 

The 2017 Elephant Hill wildfire tore through Secwepemc territory, burning 191,865 hectares in B.C.’s south-central Interior region. The Secwepemcul’ecw Restoration and Stewardship Society worked with environmental consultants to calculate impacts from the wildfire and estimated more than $1 billion in losses every year and another $1 billion in one-time losses, including loss of carbon sequestration, productive ranch land, biodiversity, ecosystem services like flood mitigation, culture and food. The society zeroed in on the consumption of deer, berries and salmon and the materials associated with their harvest, and found $1.2 million in losses due to the nearly 200,000 hectare fire. That’s the equivalent of 373 football fields, almost seven times the size of the nearby city of Kamloops or more than four times the size of Montreal. 

This year, Secwepemcul’ecw faced more destruction, with several reserves under evacuation order and alert. At least 31 homes were burned in Skwlāx te Secwepemcúl̓ecw by the Bush Creek East wildfire — along with it, stores of food people had at their homes

Illustration of a deer and birds escaping a forest fire.
A single 2017 wildfire cost $1.2 million in losses of traditionally harvested deer, salmon and berries for nearby communities. Illustration: Karlene Harvey / The Narwhal

According to a July 2023 study, Indigenous communities have made up 42 per cent of wildfire evacuations in the past decade — while only making up about five per cent of the population in Canada. And at the same time, their foodlands are being burned, Dawn Morrison, founder of the Working Group on Indigenous Food Sovereignty, points out. The destruction of traditional foods is about environmental racism and is “a social justice issue at heart,” she tells The Narwhal

So far in 2023, more than 40,000 hectares of Secwepemcul’ecw have burned, and an untold number of berries, medicine plants and animals have been injured or killed. Across Canada, more than 25,000 Indigenous Peoples have been evacuated due to wildfires this year — separated from their food stores and prevented from harvesting, which can have ripple effects for years.

Despite these challenges, Indigenous-led cultivation is taking root. Many Indigenous governments, companies and non-profits have launched food cultivation programs, including the Tea Creek farm in Kitwanga, B.C., which offers in-depth food sovereignty training. Tea Creek distributed more than 20,000 pounds of vegetables last year to other communities, including the Downtown Eastside in Vancouver. But the program goes beyond just growing food, and includes hands-on education for Indigenous trainees in all the associated skills like carpentry, administration and cooking. 

In July, the province announced a $30-million Indigenous food sovereignty program to assist the revitalization of traditional food systems. “The use of Traditional Knowledge will support Indigenous farming in a changing climate, while offering more equitable participation in B.C.’s agriculture economy and reducing the disproportionate amount of food insecurity within Indigenous communities,” the press release reads.

Camas

Biodiversity loss has led to the decline of many food and medicine plants across ecosystems, including camas, a beloved purple lily. Camas have tasty bulbs under the soil that provided an important carbohydrate to First Nations’ diets pre-colonization. Edible camas sometimes grow alongside poisonous death camas, and can be confused to the untrained eye. Historically, Indigenous women employed expert cultivation techniques to help camas meadows thrive, such as the cultural burns which were outlawed by the provincial government. Camas thrive in the Garry oak ecosystem, which is unique to British Columbia, but 95 per cent of that ecosystem has been lost.

Ethnobotanist Nancy Turner estimates First Nations on Vancouver Island, and the smaller adjacent islands, may have once harvested as many as 10 million camas bulbs per year.

At Xwaaqw’um, a Quw’utsun village site on Salt Spring Island, the mountainside was once covered in thousands of camas, which turned it blue every spring. According to Sulatiye’, Maiya Modeste, the pre-contact population was around 15,000 people. In her research, Turner found that even just a few decades ago, everyone at Quw’utsun feasts would have had two or three camas bulbs on their plate — putting food stores in the tens of thousands.

Today, just 40 camas remain at Xwaaqw’um, where much of the Garry oak ecosystem was cleared away. Most people have not tried camas, though some older people have memories of having it when they were younger. 

It would require about 15,000 bulbs to provide every Quw’utsun member today with one meal with a hearty side of two or three camas bulbs as they previously enjoyed, since they have over 5,000 members today.

Illustration of a child and adult in a field of blue flowers.
First Nations on Vancouver Island once harvested 10 million camas bulbs per year. Today, far fewer have tasted the traditional food, but projects are underway to bring the beloved plant back to abundance. Illustration: Karlene Harvey / The Narwhal

Bringing back camas at a local scale will require a big investment of time and energy. Modeste began working on this meadow in 2021, but camas take about three years to flower. She is hoping to see the first fruits of her efforts next spring. Camas bulbs start out very small, and often aren’t harvested until they’re five years old. But after that, they can begin to sustain a very productive plot.

Camas are not listed as endangered by the federal government. Still, their precipitous decline means they can’t yet be widely harvested for food without concerns of depleting their numbers further. Many First Nations encourage people to grow their own bulbs but not to harvest wild camas, because they have been so nearly wiped out in the past century. But with cultivation and care, they can grow rapidly: a single camas produces many bulbs. It may take years before you get a good camas bulb harvest — but “once you get them going and you start more every year, in five year’s time, you’re going to have a reliable crop every year,” Turner says. “I would say it would be better to start modestly … and then gradually over time, just keep expanding and expanding.”

“Our goal with this garden is to be able to create enough of an abundance that we can invite others to come and learn how to harvest, how to prepare and preserve our traditional foods — with the hope and dream to feed Elders our traditional meals,” Modeste says.

To Modeste, food sovereignty means “coming home.” And the first step is taking the years of patience necessary to install that new fish monitoring system, restore that habitat, grow that lily, pull out that one bulb — and then bring it home, back to that Elder’s plate.

Nourish is made possible with support from the Real Estate Foundation of BC. As per The Narwhal’s editorial independence policy, no foundation or outside organization has editorial input into our stories.

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