At gatherings in Secwepemcúl’ecw you will often hear a speaker conclude by saying “kweseltken” — roughly “all my relations” in English. It is a way to honour the bonds of love and family that tie our communities together and acknowledge our relationship as humans to all the living things around us.
Sharing with and caring for your kweseltken is central to Secwépemc culture. It’s no wonder, then, that Kweseltken was chosen as the name of the food sovereignty program led by the Community Futures Development Fund of the Central Interior First Nations (CFDF CIFN).
The program’s long-term goals are far-reaching. Like the Kamloops Food Policy Council (KFPC), which it collaborates with, Kweseltken seeks to create a food secure future not only for the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc, but for Kamloops, the B.C. interior and beyond.
I was recently invited to take a walk through the Kweseltken garden sites with project coordinator Shay Paul to discuss the program’s accomplishments and plans for the future.
Food is love
We began at the project’s main greenhouse, tucked in behind Ts’e7í7elt re Yecwemníletens (Little Fawn Nursery) at Chief Louis Center on Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc territory.
From outside, the wood and polyurethane structure is unassuming, but the magic is on the inside. Tomatoes, corn, beets and dozens of other veggies grow alongside sprawling squash vines with flowers as big as your hand. Rising up as a centrepiece is a towering beanstalk covered in charming purple pods.
Kweseltken team members Shay Paul, Tina Malkie and Alexis Paul tend the vegetables in the main greenhouse at Chief Louis Centre. Photo by Lyssa Martin / The Wren
Food is medicine
The Kweseltken Food Sovereignty team was formed in 2020, in response to COVID-19 lockdowns. At the time, public safety measures further isolated community members who were already struggling to access healthy foods. Restoring and planting this greenhouse was among the team’s first orders of business.
“All of this produce is distributed to our most vulnerable community members” such as elders, people with disabilities and single parents, Paul explains. This is mainly accomplished through the produce box program “Good Food Boxes,” but Kweseltken members are also exploring other avenues.
“This week we are hosting a luncheon where our elders can come for a meal and choose what they want to take home from the produce available,” she says. “We want to give people agency over what they eat. Being fed by your community shouldn’t feel like accepting charity.”
As we continued our tour, we passed the nursery and the Sk’elep School of Excellence — where the Kweseltken team is maintaining students’ garden beds over summer break — to arrive at the Berry Walk.
Initially envisioned by permaculture land designer Shelaigh Garson as a communal space to gather and heal among the plants, the Berry Walk was transformed after the discovery of 215 suspected unmarked graves at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School. With 215 edible or medicinal plants added, the garden became a memorial to Le Estcwicwéy̓, honouring the children who did not return home from the so-called “school” that stands only meters away.
In time, the trees and shrubs will fill out, providing shade as well as food to everyone who stops by.
Paul explains there are unique food security issues facing Indigenous communities, above and beyond those looming over us all.
The rural and isolated nature of certain reservations has made them “food deserts,” places where healthy foods are inaccessible.
“Due to their long shelf life, high-carbohydrate, low-nutrient foods are often all that is readily available,” she says. Even when fresh foods are on offer, the higher cost of shipping and storing these goods raises the price and presents yet another barrier to Indigenous communities.
“Our traditional diet was much richer in protein, healthy fats and complex carbohydrates, like inulin,” she explains.
Transmission of this knowledge to the next generation was impaired first by the encroachment of settlers blocking access to key resources, then by the forced assimilation tactics of the residential “school” system.
The shift to the high-starch, low-variety colonial diet has resulted in high rates of obesity, type 2 diabetes, dyslipidemia, cardiovascular disease and metabolic syndrome; conditions Paul says Indigenous people living in “Canada” are nearly twice as likely to develop compared to their non-Indigenous counterparts.
“We are working to reawaken that wisdom in our community,” she says. “We want this to be a place where generations come together, share their knowledge and keep it alive.”
Food is community
Re ckw’en’llqtens-kucw Community Garden is a short drive from the bustle of Chief Louis Centre and the highway, accessible through the field at the Full Circle Youth Centre on Kamloopa Way.
Here, every garden bed has its own personality provided by a unique combination of plants. Bright floral blooms contrast against the lush greenery, all watched over by the towering sentinel Mount Paul.
The garden actually predates the Kweseltken project, but has since come under its umbrella.
“We have had [the community garden] for a number of years, but there wasn’t really a push to get people in,” Paul explains.
Team members have made many improvements at this site recently, including adding compost tumblers and a new shed, as well as a covered seating area where visitors can take breaks in the shade.
There are 26 garden plots available to community members, with any extras being planted by the team to supplement the main greenhouse.
“Everything we grow that can’t get eaten right away is preserved, that is when we hold workshops for canning or dehydrating,” she explains. “We also do workshops for things like gardening, pest control, composting, food preservation [and] traditional medicines.”
Food is the future
A few short minutes to the north is the team’s third site, still under development.
Here the ground is the familiar pillowy soft sand deposited along the Thompson Rivers, a reminder that their seemingly fixed paths actually meander over time. The lot backs onto an expansive grove of berries, a favourite stop among local wildlife.
So far a temperature controlled hothouse has been installed, but there are plans for additional infrastructure. The team is working to fund a second hothouse, and looking at the feasibility of adding an arbour and other community space.
“We need more facilities for hosting workshops and events locally,” Paul says. “The spaces we have now are the red brick building or the old Kamloops Residential School building. For our community members I personally don’t think that is very trauma-informed or appropriate.”
Momentum behind the Kweseltken project is building. As its team grows, members can do more and be more present in the community. Kweseltken members can be found at the Kweseltken Farm and Artisan Market, which they host on Sunday mornings at the Kamloops Powwow Arbour.
“Being connected to our food, to nature, is healing, and that is something that we want everyone in our community to be able to engage with.”