British Columbia

First federal Indigenous demonstration garden opens in Okanagan

A federal agricultural research centre in Summerland, B.C., has opened its first Indigenous garden, a project aimed revitalizing food plants that are traditional to local Indigenous communities like the Syilx Okanagan Nation.

Project aims to preserve and promote food plants that are significant to the region's First Nations

Mehdi Sharif (left) and Dana Johnson say Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada's new Indigenous garden will be used to strengthen the relationship between the federal government and local First Nations communities. (Alya Ramadan/CBC )

For 108 years, scientists at the Summerland Research and Development Centre have been studying how to sustainably grow popular food crops in B.C.'s Okanagan region such as wine grapes and fruit trees. 

Now, in the spirit of reconciliation, the centre has opened its first ever Indigenous demonstration garden — a project funded by the federal government aimed at revitalizing food plants that have traditional significance to local Indigenous communities like the Syilx Okanagan Nation.

Mehdi Sharifi, the project's lead scientist, says it's the first of 20 research centres owned by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) to recognize a garden rooted in Indigenous history and to study what impact climate change will have on these plants — including chokecherries, soapberries, Oregon grapes, fireweed and rabbitbrush — and the animals that depend on them.

The project will also be used to teach students, employees and the public about these plants' importance in the environment and to Indigenous communities, and Indigenous students will be hired to maintain the site, said Sharifi.

He said he hopes the garden will also show how a landscape can change over time "from a degraded to a healthy ecosystem" — and from this, he hopes people will be "inspired" to use Indigenous strategies to regenerate land that may have been degraded over time from Western farming practices.

Sharifi said the project was approved in 2019 but, due to COVID-19 restrictions, had to be delayed.

Research assistant Dana Johnson says all of the plants in the Indigenous garden have been historically used for food, medicine, tools and crafts in First Nation communities. (Alya Ramadan/CBC)

A garden that mimics the natural world

Research assistant Dana Johnson, who is of Gitxsan ancestry and grew up in the region, took CBC's Daybreak South on a tour of the garden, which has just been planted, and said many of the species have been used throughout Indigenous history for food, medicine, tools and crafts.

Indigenous communities across the country lost the right to their cultural food systems when the Indian Act was enacted in 1876. 

Johnson said their goal with the garden is to plant the highest density and diversity of species that they could fit into the space, which covers an area of about 20 metres by 30 metres.  

"We tried to plant things according to how we saw them in their natural environment. Not a lot of straight lines," said Johnson, who added that the plants are being cared for without chemical pesticides and herbicides.

She said by planting a garden that recreates parts of an environment so well known to the Okanagan region's First Nations, "we can integrate all this knowledge and make [research] a little more biodiverse and sustainable, and it'll benefit everybody involved."

She said she believes in the power of marrying Indigenous knowledge and western science to widen scientific understanding of these traditional plants.

"I think there's a lot of catching up to do [to broaden Western research approaches] … It's a small step, but a really important step," she said, adding that she's eager to see other AAFC research stations begin similar First Nations-inspired projects. 

Sharifi said signs for each group of plants will be installed, using nsyilxcən, English, French and a QR code that will link to a website for further information. 

The garden is still in its early stages, but the public will be able to visit it as it grows.

With files from Alya Ramadan, Adam van der Zwan and Daybreak South