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Cultivating resilience and hope in a coastal garden

N-EAT Project

It’s been said that a garden is a grand teacher. 

As Chief Roxanne Robinson observes members of her Kitasoo/Xai’xais First Nation tend the soil in their remote coastal community of Klemtu, B.C., she sees the depth of their learning—and the potential for a more secure future.

“This garden project has created more opportunities for food sovereignty but has also brought good medicine to our people,” Chief Roxanne says. “Planting and harvesting is a form of meditation, it’s a form of ceremony that has ignited a spark in our community members.”

The Kitasoo Nation has partnered with SFU researchers from the Nutrition through Engagement and Agricultural Technologies (N-EAT) Project to develop local food production, create sustainable business models and engage the community including its youth. The project aims to improve health and well-being and cultivate resilience in the face of climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic and other disruptions.

“In the grand scheme of things, we are serving as a catalyst,” says Zafar Adeel, executive director of SFU’s Pacific Water Research Centre, which oversees N-EAT. “This is about building capacity so the community can be self-reliant. Eventually our team should be able to walk away and everything that we built together will be sustained by the communities themselves.”

In Klemtu, all food is delivered by ferry. By the time it arrives, many items are no longer fresh and the community frequently relies on packaged and processed food. Prior to the pandemic, many people made a two- to three-day journey to Port Hardy to purchase groceries. Now the Kitasoo Band Store is often cleaned out of essentials like rice and flour and has limits on other items. In addition, much of the soil around Klemtu is unfit for cultivation due to oil contamination in the coastal area.

“It has been a very uncertain time for our Nation,” says Chief Roxanne. “To have the security of the garden is critical.”

In the spring of 2019, the N-EAT team helped Klemtu community members restore a greenhouse and install community garden boxes. Local school staff, students and others attended workshops delivered by N-EAT’s Master Gardener, while Tammara Soma, the director and co-founder of SFU Food Systems Lab, shared expertise on food security. With the support of local gardeners and volunteers, Esther Robinson was hired as the Garden Coordinator to manage the greenhouse and a portion of the outdoor garden beds. Other beds are managed by individual community members and their families.

In the summer of 2020, unable to travel due to pandemic restrictions, participants from Embark—an SFU student society empowering sustainability leaders—collaborated with the community to produce guidebooks on how to grow and harvest food without using chemicals. Students also created a recipe book—a living document—based on the 15 different crops grown so far through the project, including kale, broccoli, melons and tomatoes.

“I have never tasted anything so great in all my life,” Chief Roxanne says of trying fresh garden carrots for the first time. “It’s a very different experience to eat food that has been grown on your own land. It’s very powerful.”

She is particularly encouraged by the project’s intergenerational appeal. Students have painted garden boxes with traditional Indigenous designs, and are learning lifelong food growing skills while nurturing their loved ones with their harvests. Young families and elders are also faithfully caring for their own crops.

“Busy hands mean calm minds,” she explains. “Our community has suffered with a lot of addiction issues and social issues, and pandemic restrictions have only created more challenges. For those wanting to find their place, many go to the garden. Being there is very therapeutic.”

Chief Roxanne attributes much of the project’s success to local youth leadership, which has helped engage community members, foster the relationship with SFU, and inspire new opportunities to further food security. She recounts a recent conversation with Ross Neasloss Jr. and Esther Robinson, who want to explore ways to replant salmon berries and some Indigenous medicinal plants into healthy soil and possibly start a Christmas tree farm.

“It’s exciting to think about future generations 10, 20 or 100 years down the road being able to eat these foods and go out with their families to get their trees,” she says. “I listen to their goals and ideas and come away thinking they are visionaries. I don’t know if they realize it.”

The N-EAT project started with support from two private funding donors—Willow Grove Foundation and RST Foundation—who had strong connections with and appreciation for the community in Klemtu. A recent gift from the Real Estate Foundation of BC will support the project’s expansion to other Indigenous communities in the province. SFU also received funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) as part of an initiative supporting research into COVID-19’s social, cultural and economic impacts.

Adeel calls N-EAT “a labour of love for everyone involved.”

With many communities around the world now dealing with similar issues related to food, water and resource security, he says the team’s long-term goal is to secure sustainable operational funding to spin off the initiative from SFU, establish N-EAT across Canada and take the model overseas.