A story about her father and his hatred of beets continues to remind Elizabeth Moore why bringing traditional food and teaching to her home of Haida Gwaii is so important.

Moore, an Indigenous food gatherer, works with schools, hospitals and the greater community to increase food security and knowledge in the area. She recalls a lunch out with her father, who is a residential school survivor, where she ordered him borscht.

“He had told me previously he doesn't like beets because that's all he ate when he was at residential school. They ate them raw,” she said. “My father came out of the restaurant with me and said, ‘Don't ever do that again,’ because he did eat the soup.”

Moore said the experience prompted her to reflect on her father’s resilience and experience, as well as a larger picture.

“These are such horrific injustices to First Nations people. And then we're going to introduce farming to our children, (so) we need to ensure that our elders, people who have experienced injustices, (are provided) a healing point where they can accept a handful of beets from their great-great-grandchild or their grandchild with a smile and not feel that pain of school.”

Moore has been trying to do just that. After working with the Haida Gwaii Restorative Justice Program for over 20 years, she has narrowed in on creating and maintaining programming around food. She works with a grassroots organization, Local Food 2 School, as well as Nourish, a program dedicated to incorporating traditional Haida food in hospital menus.

From left: Brady Edwards Sr., Woodrow Samuels and Elizabeth Moore can salmon in Haida Gwaii in 1984. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Moore

Local Food 2 School, which focuses on sourcing, storing and distributing food as well as workshops and food redistribution, is overseen by a Xaayda/Xaada Foods Committee (XFC), which provides Haida direction in local food programming consistent with policies and protocols of Haida governing bodies.

The organization involves local hunters and gatherers and helps localize food in Haida Gwaii, where importing groceries is costly.

“I remember bringing seaweed into the school to teach the kids how to dry the seaweed. And then I brought the smoked salmon so that they could learn how to cut it for canning,” Moore said. “So my passion has always been about harvesting and teaching people to work with our traditional foods.”

It’s interesting, says Moore, to see the different reactions from schoolchildren. Some say they've already been taught how to process and preserve food, while others are learning for their first time.

“What I've learned from the old people is that our food has always healed us, it's healed every aspect of ailments, even the psychological ones,” says Elizabeth Moore, about why traditional food in hospitals is so important in Haida Gwaii.

Her reach stretches beyond institutions. Once, her daughter skinned her knee on a dock during a day of catching sockeye salmon. While at the hospital getting her checked out, the doctor noticed the fish smell and asked what they’d been up to.

“(I told him), 'If you want to learn, you can come.' So, he came and learned how to work on fish. He never had a no-see-um bite him before. I said, 'Aren't you a doctor? Don’t you know everything?” she said, with a laugh.

“So, not only am I asking for support from the knowledge keepers, but I'm also sharing that with all kinds of people. Not just my own people.”

It’s an approach that continues to impress and inspire Shelly Crack, who works with Moore.

“Elizabeth is always making a bridge between really colonial systems that are often not supporting Indigenous people,” she said. “What she's able to do is share the strength and resilience and the knowledge of the community.”

Crack has been a registered dietitian with Northern Health for 15 years. As well as being part of the Local Food 2 School team, she has worked to bring traditional Haida food into hospitals in the region. The Haida Gwaii Hospital and Health Centre, which mainly serves Haida people in the area, has been going through a gradual shift since 2017 to incorporate traditional and local foods into the menu.

“Like last weekend, we served venison stew and local raspberry dessert with our elders for Valentine's,” she said.

“And now we're really embedded in a big conversation, Elizabeth’s part of that, about how we're looking at traditional food in all our hospital systems across Northern Health.”

Jenny Cross and Shelly Crack with k’aaw (salmon eggs on kelp) drying behind them. Cross holds a position on the Nourish Indigenous and Allies Advisory Council and has been a mentor for Crack's work. Photo courtesy of Shelly Crack

Crack said it’s in the early stages, but the goal is for the program to expand and take a more regional approach.

“We've mapped the complexities of how challenging it is because of policies, food safety regulations, contracts with food suppliers — all of these things prohibit us to do it. So it's a challenge,” she said.

The team is now working on an application for Nourish 2.0, which would mean more traditional food at more hospitals across the Northern Health region.

“It's our hope that we can get traditional food into all hospitals in Northern Health. That's a little dreamy, but that's a little bit of our approach with Nourish 2.0,” she said.

Moore emphasizes that expanding the program to more hospitals would impact the health of the community.

“What I've learned from the old people is that our food has always healed us, it's healed every aspect of ailments, even the psychological ones,” said Moore.

“They never said it like that, but they said when there was someone who was sad, they'd make sure they brought the best berries or fruits or fish to them so that they would get well quickly ... It's actually common sense, I think, but sometimes we don't even think about common sense.”

Cloe Logan / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer