Victoria and its environs are a crucible for food activism and food systems innovation, perhaps owing in part to the drive for self-sufficiency that is an inherent part of island life. But these things aren’t automatic: here, as elsewhere, it’s communities of determined advocates, organizers, and doers that propel food initiatives forward; the policy response often comes later. I had the good fortune recently to meet and learn from folks in the vanguard of our local food movement at the 2018 Good Food Summit, hosted by the Capital Region Food and Agriculture Initiatives Roundtable (CRFAIR).
In the morning, I participated in a workshop called “25 Years of Change – The LifeCycles Project Society.” A quarter century on, the organization is still spunky and spins a far-reaching web, and we’ve caught hold of some of these threads in the permaculture program this year – Jesse, our Annual Plants instructor, is the former coordinator of the LifeCycles Farm Gleaning Project, and JJ, the nursery manager at Mason Street City Farm, also heads the Welland Community Orchard project for LifeCycles. (Mason Street is also a participating farm for the gleaning project.) Even with this personal and program-related background, though, I hadn’t fully appreciated the breadth and creativity of the group’s various initiatives until sitting down for the workshop.
JJ and the organization’s executive director, Matthew Kemshaw, were leading the presentation. Matthew began with an overview of the LifeCycles Fruit Tree Project. Victoria is home to one of the continent’s larger “urban orchards” – fruit trees scattered in backyards through the city, in various states of tending and health, many having been historically un- or under-harvested. A group of volunteer pickers coordinated by LifeCycles is matched with fruit tree owners, with a quarter of the resulting yield for the owner, a quarter for the picker, a quarter for local foodbanks, and the last quarter for LifeCycles itself (a great example of the permaculture tenet to “share the surplus”). Matthew told us that this past summer, about four hundred volunteers harvested from roughly three hundred private yards in the city. In collaboration with the local brewpub Spinnakers, a portion of the LifeCycles haul is turned into cider, called “Backyard Blend”, which is sold locally and thought to be “the only [commercial-scale] cider anywhere sourced almost entirely from within an urban setting.”
The Victoria Seed Library, administered by LifeCycles in partnership with the Greater Victoria Public Library, offers participants free access to a range of vegetable, flower, herb, and native plant seeds. The only requirement for “borrowers” is their attendance at one of the orientation and education sessions, held at the downtown branch of the library. As we learned in our Annual Plants class this year, saving seed and selecting for desirable traits at a regional level can yield resilient, better-adapted plants that are more nutrient-dense, climate change-ready, and well-suited for local pollinators. This year, more than three hundred varieties of seed were signed out from the library by members of the community; now, in the winter months, the volunteer steering committee goes through the process of germ testing the returned seed to determine germination rates and viability.
After reviewing some of the other main LifeCycles projects – Growing Schools, Farm Gleaning, and the Community Food Program, JJ turned to her own work at the Welland Community Orchard. Located in the town of View Royal, the site is named for Rex Welland, a local conservationist who collected scion wood from rare heritage fruit varieties in orchards throughout the region and propagated the trees in what was then his backyard. When he passed away in 2008, two-thirds of the one acre orchard site was donated to View Royal through a land conservancy covenant.
The town contracts LifeCycles to maintain the park and orchard, which it does in part through drop-in work parties and the efforts of a team of tree care apprentices, who volunteer in exchange for lessons on pruning and other elements of tree health. According to JJ, there are currently 125 different varieties of heritage apples at the orchard, as well as 10 pears, 9 grapes, 5 figs, 4 plums, 3 pawpaws, kiwis, hazelnuts, and a sour cherry. Though orchards in North America have a complex history (as representative sites of Indigenous dispossession, for example), advocates suggest that they hold promise as a front in the effort to reclaim the commons and establish productive community spaces.
After lunch, I walked across the hall for a workshop called “How Our Land-Based Identities Intersect with Indigenous Food Systems”. The session was hosted by Samantha, a W̱SÁNEĆ activist, and Dakota, a Kwakwaka’wakw activist from the northeastern part of the island. The two began by exploring how settler colonialism continues to pervade local food systems, and how even well-meaning food sovereignty and food justice movements are often beset by Indigenous tokenism.
A main focus of the talk was Indigenous efforts to end fish farming in British Columbia. Samantha explained the concept of genetic memory, or “blood memory”, which underpins Indigenous oral storytelling traditions. Treatment that doesn’t acknowledge animals’ “blood memory” is also one of the ways in which industrial farming practices fail to honour animals’ wild roots. She explained that at open net fish farms along the West Coast, young Atlantic salmon (called “smolts”) are placed in ocean pens made from suspended netting, where they’re grown until they reach a harvestable size. A single operation can hold upwards of a million salmon.
These close quarters and the low genetic diversity of the farmed fish make it a breeding ground for disease. The penned fish are administered anti-parasite drugs to prevent infestations of sea lice, but outbreaks are not uncommon; wild salmon migrating past fish farm sites pick up the parasites, and in 2017 ninety-six percent of wild juvenile salmon in the Clayoquot Sound area were found to be infected. Piscine Reovirus (PRV) is found in over seventy percent of farmed Atlantic salmon, prompting heart and skeletal muscle inflammation, and, according to a recent study, likely causing a related disease in the local Chinook salmon.
Indigenous resistance to fish farms on Vancouver Island and along the BC coast – of which there are currently about 120 – dates back decades. Activists point out that much of these territories are unceded. But it’s big business, generating $1.5 billion annually in the province, and so the political will for change has been tepid. The tide may be turning: after 250 000 Atlantic salmon escaped a fish farm off the Washington coast in August, 2017, the state Senate voted to ban Atlantic salmon farming in state waters.
Activists here have been focused on convincing the provincial government not to issue farm permits at 20 sites currently up for renewal, mainly clustered around a key salmon migration route near the Broughton Archipelago on northern Vancouver Island. Some have turned to direct action: Samantha, who is leading our session, was among a group that occupied the dry-docked Orca Chief ship at the Point Hope Shipyard in September. She and the others were arrested, but the demonstration succeeded in garnering media attention. In mid-December, the provincial government announced that an agreement had been reached with the ’Namgis, Kwikwasut’inuxw Haxwa’mis and Mamalilikulla First Nations to close all the Broughton Archipelago farms by 2022.