Heiltsuk community planting hope during pandemic with Granny Gardens project

May 16th 2020

More than 68 families in Heiltsuk community started growing their own gardens to boost morale during Covid-19

It was a rainy day in Waglisla, or Bella Bella, a remote fly-in island community on the northwest coast of B.C., where elected Heiltsuk Nation councillor Jess Housty took a moment to relax in the quiet of the village library. So far, Housty, a mother of two, has spent the COVID-19 pandemic focused on planting new seeds, new knowledge and, indeed, new life into her traditionally food-sovereign community.

Housty named her most recent project the Granny Gardens.

Just as COVID-19 social-distancing and quarantine measures started in Bella Bella (with a population that fluctuates around 1,400 people), Housty began organizing to get seedlings to families who wanted to learn how to grow their own veggies, fruits, beans, herbs, and more.

Over seventy families have signed up to grow gardens in Bella Bella, inspired by Covid-19 and backed by thousands of years of food sovereignty. Photo provided by Housty

You see, traditionally, the Heiltsuk have relied on the richness and abundance of their territories for generations. The community is full of generations of skilled fishermen and hunters, people wealthy in knowledge of their traditional foods, medicines and associated laws. But throughout the process of colonialism, the Heiltsuk people turned to grocery stores and exported foods, on top of their traditional foods, fueling a desire for revitalized food sovereignty in Housty and all those who have joined the project.

The spawn-on-kelp (SOK) fishery has been the main economic driver for the community since the late 1980s, but due to the COVID-19 measures, the band's export operations shut down for the 2020 season. The decision to call off the SOK season wasn’t an easy one, Chief Councillor Marilyn Slett said in a phone interview with National Observer in mid-April, adding 700 nation members lost work opportunities because of the shutdown.

But the community, whose elected council works in conjunction with their hereditary governance system, decided that calling it off was the best way to protect the community from the fast-spreading virus.

“The commercial harvesting would require the SOK harvesters to be in close contact with each other, as would the harvest processing. The seafood market in Japan also contributed to this decision,” read a statement released by the nation.

Traditionally, the spawn-on-kelp season is considered the Heiltsuk new year, a time to work, harvest, celebrate - a defining activity of what it means to be Heiltsuk, said Slett.

“It’s all family- and community-driven. When the tide goes out, the table is set,” she said. “We follow the seasons of the harvest. Families host feasts, potlatches. We would be celebrating the SOK harvest right now like our ancestors have done for millennia.”

For thousands of years, the Heiltsuk First Nation of BC's Central Coast has been sustainably harvesting nutrient-rich herring roe on kelp from their pristine ocean waters.

The band estimates the economic losses for the season at $6.3 million, plus $250,000 in lost salaries and $500,000 spent in preparation for the harvest.

Creating opportunities to be self-sustaining, like the Granny Gardens project, is proving to be a lifesaver for dozens of families, said Housty.

“I’ve always been concerned about our reliance on outside services,” she said. “One or two missed vegetable deliveries can send the community into a tailspin. But it doesn’t have to be that way.”

With the looming threat of COVID-19 in the outside world, gardening is providing an opportunity for nation members to strengthen and care for themselves, Housty added.

It was in 2016, when she was expecting her second child, that Housty began cultivating a garden. It helped her heal from a traumatic experience when a Texas-owned tugboat navigating through Heiltsuk fishing territories accidently dumped 110,000 litres of diesel and heavy oils into their waters destroying areas of food harvesting with rich cultural significance.

“It was six weeks of hell on Earth,” said Housty about the event. “It was the breadbasket of our nation. There was nothing I could do to make it better. It’s hard to watch the water and my community suffer.”

“To nurture a living thing, harvest and give it to a family in the community is so rewarding.”

Jess Housty has helped organize a community-driven project in Bella Bella empowering over seventy families to grow their own gardens. Photo provided by Housty

Housty believes plant knowledge is carried throughout generations, and the opportunity to garden is an invitation back to that knowledge. Photo provided by Housty

The Granny Gardens project is also inspired by the Victory Gardens planted in people’s yards and in parks during the Second World War to deal with a growing food crisis, Housty said.

So far, 68 families have signed up to learn to grow their own food, as elders, adults and youth have started nourishing their seedlings. Since the community is practicing social-distancing protocols, the Granny Garden project has started a Facebook group to post pictures and videos, take questions and provide tips. It’s a group that is highly interactive every day, said Housty.

The interaction and opportunity to grow is helping the Heiltsuk stay connected and stay hopeful during the uncertainty of the pandemic.

“It’s really what’s getting me through this COVID-19,” Kimberly Windsor told National Observer over the phone. She’s a mother of three young children, including a newborn, who is enjoying the challenge of gardening.

Windsor began gardening several years ago through a Heiltsuk youth program, but skipped growing last year after the deaths of some family members. Her husband and older children help her care for the garden now and it has become a family affair, she said.

“I love the term ‘Granny Garden’ because my family on my mom’s side did a lot of gardening and starting this reminded my mother of her childhood, when she would watch her parents garden,” Windsor said. “I love hearing her memories and of my grandparents.”

Windsor is growing tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, melons, spaghetti squash, potatoes, runner beans, peas, berries, radish, lettuce, plum, apple and cherry trees, as well as herbs.

Since there’s a lot of rocky terrain on parts of the island, growers are building raised garden beds and planting multiple “small” gardens in their front and back yards.

“It’s very therapeutic to work in the garden. I also love the connection that Granny Gardens has made between community members,” Windsor said. “It’s amazing to see gardens being built and people talking about what they’re going through on the Facebook page.”

Kimberly Windsor's family has been gardening during Covid-19 social distancing measures in their home community in Bella Bella. Photo provided by Housty

​​​​And it will be even more exciting, Windsor said, when social-distancing measures are lifted, and she can go visit her friends' gardens and see what everyone else has been busy growing.

According to Housty, the Heiltsuk people tended wild roots and berry orchards on their lands.

“There’s still that knowledge embedded in the community and I value the opportunity to boost that knowledge right now,” said Housty.

The Heiltsuk Nation has asked the federal government for emergency support to stabilize life and the impact of a missed sok fishery, and encourages it to reference the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Slett said. Heiltsuk sees Canada’s and B.C.’s support at this time as part of turning things around and making them right.

On March 19, Prime Minister Trudeau said that he recognizes Indigenous communities are forced to deal with greater health and economic challenges than most Canadians and there has to be appropriate support available.

Where Housty sees challenges, she also sees an opportunity to grow and a long line of survival, resistance and connection.

“Survival and surviving epidemics is in our genes (we’re all descendants of the one per cent of Heiltsuk people who survived smallpox/influenza) and many people are adopting this work not because they want to grow carrots and peas, but because it makes them feel more connected to the ancestors and their plant knowledge ⁠— that’s always helped us survive and thrive,” Housty said.