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'Our culture is in everything': This Indigenous chef is on a crusade for food sovereignty

Provincial food safety legislation can make it tricky to serve traditional Indigenous cuisine, says chef Jared Qwustenuxun Williams, who is part of a growing movement of Indigenous chefs and food activists pushing for food sovereignty — the right to define their own food systems.

Without locally harvested Indigenous foods, 'we're not truly highlighting Aboriginal cuisine,' chef says

Chef Jared Qwustenuxun Williams is part of a growing movement of Indigenous chefs and food activists pushing for food sovereignty. (Lauren Donnelly/CBC)
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Every weekday, Jared Qwustenuxun Williams and his kitchen staff prepare lunch for over 100 elders at Cowichan Tribes on Vancouver Island.

Traditionally, the Quw'utsun' people would harvest clams at the massive clam gardens they built and maintained, drying them for trade or cooking them in briny sea water.

But for today's seafood feast, the clams head chef Qwustenuxun cooks come in bags from a food distributor.

Locally harvested clams would contravene provincial regulation, as would privately caught fish, due to food processing concerns.

"If we cannot use all of our traditional ingredients, then we're not truly highlighting Aboriginal cuisine," Qwustenuxun said.

A seafood lunch for elders at Cowichan Tribes includes a mix of traditional and non-traditional items: coleslaw, rice, garlic prawns, clams, salmon and fry bread. (Lauren Donnelly/CBC)

He adds that traditional ingredients, like fresh raw herring eggs, lingcod eggs, and salmon head, aren't commercially available. Most provinces also prohibit restaurants from serving hunted game meat.

"That alone talks about how hard it is to reconnect with our traditional foods and our culture if we're not allowed to share, we're not allowed to showcase, and we're not allowed to access it."

Provincial food safety legislation can make it tricky to serve traditional Indigenous cuisine, says Qwustenuxun, who is part of a growing movement of Indigenous chefs and food activists pushing for food sovereignty — the right to define their own food systems.

Qwustenuxun and his kitchen staff are required to have FOODSAFE certification, which prescribes that all foods come from approved sources in accordance with the B.C. Food Premises Regulation.

Although provincial regulation does not apply to reserve land, according to the First Nations Health Authority (FNHA), a First Nation's chief and council may opt to work with the FNHA to ensure compliance with food safety legislation.

There's just so much more quality in honouring something, having a ceremony attached to these foods.- Teri Morrow, registered dietitian, Six Nations of the Grand River 

The FNHA says its Environmental Health Officers use provincial legislation as a guide for inspections and recommendations to help communities manage health risks.

"The same food safety principles apply to both traditional and commercially available foods," the agency told CBC Radio in an emailed statement.  

Additionally, as Cowichan Tribes is certified as a Tribal Health Care facility by non-profit Accreditation Canada, Qwustenuxun must comply with public regulation.

For off-reserve facilities, provincial regulations must be upheld at all times.

Lacking nutrition, 'spiritual connection'

Teri Morrow, a registered dietitian from Six Nations of the Grand River in Ontario, says nutritional benefits can be compromised when access to traditional foods is difficult.

"When we looked at the market-based foods, they were typically high in sodium, fat — unhealthy fats — very low nutrient quality," she said. "They're cheaper type foods that could last longer."

As a counsellor in Indigenous health centres in Ontario, Morrow says she observed obesity and as a result, several chronic health problems like hypertension and diabetes.

Teri Morrow, a registered dietitian from Six Nations of the Grand River in Ontario, prepares brown trout. (Submitted by Teri Morrow)

She adds that traditional foods are linked to cultural expression.

"We're thinking about the spiritual connection that food has," she said. "Hundreds of people getting together, sharing food together and talking about important issues in their life."

"There's just so much more quality in honouring something, having a ceremony attached to these foods."

'Our culture is in everything'

Qwustenuxun is passionate about preserving his community's traditions.

"[The elders] would actually prefer that you use water that is right from the ocean if we had it," he said, dumping the clams into a stockpot filled with heavily salted water.

Rather than discard the water after the clams have cooked, Qwustenuxun reserves the salty liquid to serve alongside the meal as a soup.

"Our culture is in everything," he said. "Even in the broth."

Qwustenuxun pours salty clam broth into jugs to serve Cowichan Tribe elders. Traditionally, clams would be locally harvested and cooked in sea water. (Lauren Donnelly/CBC)

Qwustenuxun was raised half-time by his grandmother, who taught him which plants to harvest for preparing foods like smoked salmon, including using bracken to clean the outside of the fish and qethulhp (ironwood) to hang the fish.

After graduating high school, he travelled the world, working in high-end restaurants and studying the culinary arts. When he returned to Vancouver Island in his mid-20s, he realized the value of the knowledge his grandmother passed down.

"There are a lot of traditional food preparations and techniques and harvesting that nobody else was taught," he said.

It's been a known fact that our people really never had to go to the grocery store- T'uwaxwiye', Quw'utsun elder

T'uwaxwiye', a Quw'utsun elder, remembers smoking fish with her family when she was growing up.

"It's been a known fact that our people really never had to go to the grocery store," she said.

"Their food was in the river, and their meat was in the forest in the backyard … that's really what sustained our people back in the day."

According to T'uwaxwiye', traditional food preparation techniques build community. When she was growing up, everyone — from the youngest child to the oldest elder — had a role.

"There's barriers up now all over," she said. "It's not that easy."

B.C. Elders' Gathering a success

As a devoted student, Qwustenuxun learns as much as he can from the elders.

"Food is the fulcrum of our cultures," he said. "I'm using it as a tool to try to keep large segments of our Cowichan culture alive."

Last year, Qwustenuxun was the executive chef in charge of the annual B.C. Elders' Gathering in Duncan, B.C. He planned three meals a day for the three-day event, oversaw 52 chefs and fed 3,000 elders.

Qwustenuxun (front row, with hat) with his team who cooked for 3,000 elders at the annual B.C. Elders Gathering in Duncan, B.C. (Submitted by Jared Qwustenuxun William)

It was a victory for Qwustenuxun because not only did the event run seamlessly, but B.C. health authorities agreed that he could cook with crab, sea urchin, and traditionally smoked salmon for the occasion.

He's continuing the conversation with the FNHA in hopes that local tribes can gain control of inspection processes for traditional foods.

"I feel like I don't have a choice, that if I don't try to change this, then it'll never happen."

The FNHA says it is "working with its partners on how to enhance access to traditional foods given their importance."

Qwustenuxun references programs at Yukon's Whitehorse General Hospital and Queen Charlotte/Haida Gwaii General Hospital, which serve traditional foods, like bannock and moose and caribou broths, to patients.

He wants to see a similar model at Cowichan Tribes, and hopes that one day the broader Canadian public will have access to authentic Quw'utsun' food.

"I'm willing to work for the majority of my life trying to change it," he said. "Because it's not too late yet."


The Renew series about Indigenous Innovation is produced in partnership with the Reporting in Indigenous Communities course at UBC's Graduate School of Journalism.