“When the tide is out the table is set” is a longstanding Coast Salish teaching. When we consider local food, the first thought that comes to mind for most is food from local farms and gardens.
However, it’s important to remember that settlers have only been on this land for just over 150 years. For thousands of years the WSÁNEC (Saanich) people not only ate from the coastlines and land but cultivated and stewarded these lands over generations. These foods are the original “local” foods.
A challenge being faced is that there is no longer access to many traditional foods. These foods are still important today, not only for nourishment of the body, but for cultural and ceremonial purposes and the broader health of communities. One of the key foods, shellfish, is no longer accessible due to year-round blanket closures to harvesting on the shorelines and beaches on the Saanich Peninsula. These closures are put in place by Environment Canada over concerns of contamination and public safety.
We know that cockle and clam harvesting is still happening by communities despite the closures. There is concern that under the Douglas Treaty, Aboriginals have the right to fish as formerly, and that the blanket shoreline closures that have been in place since the 1990s, in effect extinguish this right. At the same time, everyone agrees public safety is extremely important. No one wants anyone to get sick. There are many questions being raised. Are the blanket closures necessary, and would more frequent site-specific testing give us better information about the actual threats? If there are pollutants that are causing contamination can the sources be remediated? Could key sites be made safe for harvest again?
In March, a working group was formed of the Capital Region District, First Nations from Tsawout, Tsarlip and Tseycum, local governments, community organizations, First Nations Health Authority, Island Health, Environment Canada and other experts who are coming together to look at this challenge.
The major sources that have caused these closures since the 1990s have been a combination of contaminants from storm water, marina’s, agriculture, sewage outfalls, wildlife and even dogs on the beaches. Taking the lead by the First Nations representatives on the working group, there is consideration of a process to determine where key food resources are close to the current village sites and what might be done to identify if there are current contaminants or threats. How might we work together to clean these areas up, and make them safe to harvest once again?
It is a very complex process with multiple governments, authorities and jurisdictions concerned, however, there is a lot of goodwill and expertise around the table to go forward. Stay tuned to Local Flavour for progress reports to come.
Linda Geggie is the executive director with the Capital Region Food and Agriculture Initiatives Roundtable and can be reached at email@example.com.