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Garry oaks, camas reveal agricultural impacts of colonialism on Vancouver Island

Lekwungen food expert Cheryl Bryce looks to raise awareness of traditional food systems
Camas flowers in full bloom. (Devon Bidal/News Staff)

Newcomers to Vancouver Island will find it hard to miss the unique Garry oak ecosystem that’s so celebrated by south Islanders. The rough bark on knobby trunks create sculptural landscapes out of grassy hills.

But what makes the Garry oak so special, besides its obvious beauty? Why is it so important and what is the endangered ecosystem being protected from?

“It’s the reason you’re here,” answered Metchosin farmer Robin Tunnicliffe, standing in her field that boasts a wild Garry oak lawn area beside neatly cultivated rows of vegetables. “It’s the reason we’re all here.”

Come again?

She pointed to the bright purple flowers beneath the gnarly branches – camas flowers, as most Greater Victorians well know. They have a nice, bulbous tuber for a root that’s a great food source, something like a parsnip; rich in nutrients and long-lasting when stored properly.

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According to Songhees woman and traditional food expert Cheryl Bryce, the Lekwungen peoples have long cultivated these plants for food and trade. They tended to the hillsides by setting controlled burns and clearing shrubby undergrowth. Scabby Garry oak bark is naturally resilient to flame, so they remained while the grasslands flourished – much like what Beacon Hill Park looks like today.

So when James Douglas rolled up on his schooner in 1842 scouting sites for a new fort, the camas meadows sang to him. He saw open, “uncultivated” land that looked fertile with minimal trees to clear. Perfect for a new fort.

Except, it wasn’t uncultivated.

Songhees women were tending to the fields, cultivating and harvesting camas (Kwetlal, in Lekwungen) each fall for food and trade. They managed the land and fairly distributed the harvest. The starchy tubers were a prized item for trade, as valued as salmon. People used to come from all over to the south Island for the bounty. The land looked so welcoming to Douglas because it was a farm.

But settlers quickly took over, letting livestock root for the tubers, planting their own crops of potatoes and carrots, pushing out not just the Songhees people, but also their food.

Bryce grew up helping her grandmother Edna harvest Kwetlal, inadvertently learning as they went. She learned about the death camas, a poisonous relative that her ancestors used to relocate each spring to the borders of the fields to deter raids.

She learned to spread seeds as they dug for the tubers, to replace the topsoil for minimal disruption and how to cook it in a pit oven – an earthen slow cooker, she called it.

By now, development has destroyed almost all of the Garry oak ecosystem on the South Island, one of the only places it remains. Bryce said less than five per cent remains. Some people in her nation have never tasted Kwetlal.

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The Garry oak is red-listed as endangered, but protection from overlapping laws at various levels of government don’t add up to much, she says. What does remain is on reserve land, or sometimes in parks such as Uplands Park in Oak Bay or Beacon Hill.

“It’s almost like we’re becoming a greenbelt for Canada. That really starts to restrict what we can do with the small amount of land we have,” Bryce said. The Species at Risk Act gives limited protection on private land, which is where most Garry oak destruction happens. Some municipalities have additional protection measures in place to prevent this.

But the Kwetlal food system – a.k.a. the Garry oak ecosystem – is about more conservation for Bryce.

“The Kwetlal food system is really a living artefact, because of the family roles and the traditional practices on the land that sustained it through the generations. It’s here because of my ancestors.”

In about 1995, Bryce helped with a small exhibit at the Royal B.C. Museum. The idea was to contrast the Songhees people before contact and in modern times. That was when Bryce realized how ignorant Victorians were about her people and the history of the land they all lived on.

“Literally, people who lived in Victoria said to me, ‘I thought you were extinct.’”

That, plus people would interfere while she was harvesting Kwetlal.

“People felt entitled to tell me I didn’t have the right to do what I am doing. People got confrontational and insistent that I stop, sometimes physically try to make me stop, sometimes call the police. No matter what I said, they just didn’t get it.”

In some harvest areas she brings a white person with her to harvest. If a passerby has an issue, they can talk with her white friend instead of yelling at Bryce.

That’s why she started speaking publicly – going to meetings, speaking to municipalities and community groups. “It wasn’t to teach people to do it themselves, but to teach about what we do, to teach respect for Lekwungen peoples.”

Her goal of awareness is slowly starting to show fruit: “Now sometimes people will ask if I’m harvesting camas. That never used to happen.”

Awareness is one thing, but she really wants to see the food system revitalized.

A dream would be to see it being traded again, but mostly, she says, “I don’t want to be an elder telling people what it used to taste like.”

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