Johnny Perry and Fernanda Alexander, who helped organize this year’s dinner.

Helping Our Urban Kwselktn Winter Feast in Vancouver has local roots

Johnny Perry of the Bonaparte Band helped organize the dinner, now in its third year

The third annual Helping Our Urban Kwselktn [Family] Winter Feast was held at the Woodward’s Atrium in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES) on Jan. 12. The event—which has its roots in a 2016 conversation between three members of the Bonaparte Indian Band—offered a free meal and donations of food, toiletries, and other items to more than 500 people.

Back in 2016, Bonaparte chief Ryan Day was speaking with Bonaparte Band member Johnny Perry and his father, Johnny Perry, Sr., about what was needed to help DTES residents, many of whom are First Nations. Johnny Perry—a support worker for Vancouver Native Housing—knew not only what was needed by DTES residents, but when.

“It’s something we saw a great need for in mid-January, when people have the mid-winter blues, and to bridge the gap between cheques,” said Perry at the time. “People get paid extra early in December, meaning a longer wait than usual until their next cheque.”

At the first dinner in January 2017, residents of the DTES not only got a meal; they received gifts of traditional foods, which had been gathered by members of the Scewe’pemc Nations of the Interior. More than 600 jars of preserved traditional food such as moose meat, deer meat, salmon, and berries were given to participants, connecting them to the land and providing them with both physical and spiritual nourishment.

At the 2018 dinner there were fewer donations of local food because of the 2017 wildfires, which left First Nations unable to do the harvesting and preserving of the previous year. “But it [the dinner] was an important event to carry on,” said Perry. In lieu of food items, clothing, toiletries, and blankets supplied by the Union Gospel Mission were given out.

Throughout 2018, volunteers collected traditional Indigenous food and medicine from across British Columbia. “Lots of people know people in the Downtown Eastside, or have family members there,” says Perry, who adds that even though the dinner is only in its third year, the event is picking up momentum.

“It was a little bit bigger this year, and it’s about where we want it. Attendance was good and we had a lot of volunteers. The only way something like this happens is with volunteers and sponsors.” He cites Westbank First Nation councillor Fernanda Alexander for her assistance with the event, and says that the rental fee for the Woodward’s Atrium was waived.

Perry says that this year the food provider they usually use had to back out, but that Riverfresh in Kamloops stepped up. “They said they could do this, and they were awesome. I got goosebumps when they said they could do it. Six or eight people came down and pulled it all together. We had hot turkey sandwiches with vegetables, turkey soup, and dessert.”

There was drumming, as well as a brushing ceremony with eagle feathers. Perry describes that as like a cleansing, and calls it very powerful: “It allows you to leave behind any negative energy you’ve picked up.”

Entertainment was provided by the Haida-Tsimshian indie-pop duo Sister Says, and donated items—food, socks, gloves, blankets, and more—were distributed to all attendees. Among the food items were cans of salmon, soapberries, and jam, and Perry says that they can always use more traditional foods for the feast.

“It means a lot to the folks down here. They couldn’t believe they were getting it. Things like that aren’t handed out down here. That was my idea when I started this: connecting people back to the land.

“We chose the name—Helping Our Urban Kwselktn—because we’re all a family in this community. It’s about giving back to people, helping connect them with their home for three or four hours, bringing back memories.

“It was a really good afternoon of people gathering and looking after each other. I’m already looking forward to next year.”

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Drummers perform during the feast.

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