A chat in June 2016 between three members of the Bonaparte Indian Band led to an amazing act of giving this past weekend, when more than 550 residents of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES) received a dinner of bannock tacos and dessert at the DTES Neighbourhood House on January 14.
And those who attended the dinner received even more: more than 600 jars of preserved traditional food such as moose meat, deer meat, salmon, and berries, which had been prepared over the course of last summer and fall by members of the Secwe’pemc (Shuswap) First Nation.
Bonaparte Chief Ryan Day says he was chatting with band member Johnny Perry and his father, Johnny Perry, Sr. Perry has worked on the DTES for many years, as a support worker for Vancouver Native Housing, and knew not only what was needed by DTES residents, but when.
“Before Christmas everyone is generous and has lots to give,” says Day. “But after Christmas the giving season has kind of ended. Johnny said the best time was mid-January.”
“It’s something we saw a great need for in mid-January, when people have the mid-winter blues,” Perry says, “and to bridge the gap between cheques.” People get paid extra early in December, meaning a longer wait than usual until their next cheque.
Day says they started a Facebook group and asked people, when they started harvesting in summer and fall—whether it was berry picking, hunting, or fishing—if they could sustain their harvesting even more, and set some aside.
“We encouraged people to can things rather than freeze them. Many people wanted to donate frozen food, but we said it would spoil.”
Once they decided to go ahead, Day says the project was open to all 17 of the Secwe’pemc First Nations. “I wasn’t doing it as a chief; I was doing it as a citizen. It was open to everyone, not just chiefs and councils.”
They received canned good from many individuals, and a couple of bands did hunting camps and fishing groups. The Adams Lake Band held a canning workshop, then donated canned moose and salmon. Day says that many communities hold workshops to teach youth how to can what they harvest.
“We put the call out and everyone really stepped up,” says Perry. “It was amazing. We never really had anything to measure it by, as this was the first year, but a lot of people really stepped up to the plate.” This included, in addition to the food, donations of warm winter clothing, which Perry says was a response to the extreme cold temperatures this winter.
The type of food donated was important in several ways. “Wild foods are very nutritious to begin with,” notes Day. “But there’s also that our traditional belief, when we prepare food, is that it’s always important to put love into what we are doing; no bad thoughts. How you think and feel as you prepare food goes into the food itself.
“It’s not just the item or the object given; there’s also a spiritual component to the food, not just the physical nourishment. And when we harvest things we have certain protocols that ensure we have a relationship with it.”
The traditional foods provided a way for Secwe’pemc people to connect with and support relatives on the DTES, and a way for those residents to connect with their land, even if they have lived all their lives in an urban setting or have been away from their land for many years.
“The concept was that we would be helping our relations on the DTES, but without discriminating,” says Day. “It’s all an urban family. There are people on the DTES from everywhere.
“The reality that we live in as Indigenous people is that over the last 150 years we were taken from our land and put on reserves. There are myriad reasons people can’t live in their homeland. Making that connection is important, and it’s nice to make it through our foods.”
Perry agrees. “Connection with the land is very important. People come to the urban community for various reasons, and can’t get back to where they came from.”
Chief Ryan Day (centre, with drum) and Johnny Perry (second from right, back row) at the DTES Neighbourhood House on January 147. Photo by Elaine Alec.
While Day organized the rural component of the project, Perry organized the urban part, which included the dinner on January 14. He arranged volunteers for the dinner and got people on board to make the event happen, whether it was making bannock, chili, or dessert, by making a lot of phone calls and using his connections.
“I didn’t know what to expect, but word moves quickly in that community,” he says. They served more than 550 dinners to anyone who wanted to come.
“It was a really great response, but it took a lot of planning. The space we used only holds about 45 people, but people were very patient, and mindful of others. And many people took meals to go; some people get anxious in crowds, and prefer to take the meal away to their own space.
“People just couldn’t believe it, the food and clothing,” he adds. “There’s a misconception about this community. It’s not the addiction that’s the problem, it’s what lies beneath. We all carry around a lot of conflict and pain. [This event] allowed people to put down their pain and enjoy a day.”
Perry says that the community is definitely planning a similar event for next year. “I wish we could do this more often, but we really see the biggest need in January. It really adds a bright spot at this time of year.
“I’m looking forward to seeing what next year brings. Lots of people have stepped forward to ask if they can help next year. And it’s open to anyone in the community.
“This sort of positive doesn’t come around often, and the response has been really overwhelming. People want to help, but just don’t know how. They’re so willing to give what they can. There’s no right or wrong measure of what you can give; everything is greatly appreciated.”