Traditional foods get a modern meaning
Most conferences involve sitting around tables, often with strangers, hearing speakers talk from their PowerPoint presentations. It can sometimes feel like sitting in a schoolroom on a warm spring day, longing to be outside.
But the third annual Traditional Foods of Vancouver Island First Nations conference was learning with a difference.
In the first place, the subject was familiar to all of the 200 or so people who attended – food. And the message about the traditional foods that once sustained us was often accompanied by the tastes and smells of salmon baking or root vegetables and other delicacies cooking in a pit covered by salal and lined with kelp.
The subtext of the conference was ‘Celebrating Indigenous Foods in a Changing World’ and celebration was often the order of the two days of networking, listening to speakers and, of course, eating food.
First Nation experts shared knowledge
For its first two years, the conference was held at Snuneymuxw First Nation and Vancouver Island University. This year the venues moved south with the first day, April 16, being held at the University of Victoria and the following day at Tsawout First Nation in East Saanich.
Unlike the previous years, conference presenters this year were predominantly First Nations experts. They included: Nick Claxton of Tsawout who spoke about traditional reef-net fishing; Cliff Atleo Sr. of Ahousaht who spoke about his work and his past experiences with food; and Cheryl Bryce of Songhees who spoke about the joys of camas.
Another difference was the number of young people involved throughout the conference and even before it began. About 25 young people were part of a digital storytelling project. Days before the conference, they began to put together presentations about food, family and other subjects using state-of-the-art technology. Their stories came to life during the conference.
Traditional knowledge is real
Cliff Atleo Sr. from Ahousaht gave a presentation on behalf of the First Nation Fisheries Council. But his wide-ranging talk also touched upon the subject that was at the heart of the conference.
“I grew up in a period of time where we had no dependency on anything or anyone. Every family was an independent sustainable unit. Every family had whatever it took in order to sustain itself.
“Traditional knowledge… what is that? Is that knowledge real and can we learn from it? I say ‘yes’ it is real and we can learn from that.”
Food fish supply and the DFO
Jeff Thomas, a councillor from Snuneymuxw, gave a talk about the Fraser River and Approach Working Group (FRAWG) that he has sat on since 2008.
The group was set up by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans to study the supply of salmon for food, social and ceremonial purposes.
“The last three years were pretty bad for us in Snuneymuxw, not having any fish coming to our homes,” Thomas said. “Three years ago we got four, two years ago three and last year nothing.
” He said that Vancouver Island First Nations are now meeting with their counterparts from the Lower Fraser River and further up-river nations. All agree that, “ DFO really has to pay attention to First Nations and First Nations’ needs.
“What fish means to our people… it’s huge. I don’t know what to say when I don’t have any fish.
” He said that he hopes the work of FRAWG will allow DFO and First Nations “to get on same page. I know that it is a difficult process, especially in periods of low abundance like now. But it is a strong group and it is working.
“We are not only looking at salmon, but prawns, crabs and all those indigenous food species that are so important to us.
“What we are really working toward is co-management. But it is going to take us awhile to get there.”