Setting the Table: Serving the Local Abundance of Haida Gwaii

A Nourish interview with Shelly Crack, Haida Gwaii Hospital and Health Center and Jenny Cross, Traditional Haida Knowledge Keeper

Nourish innovator Shelly Crack has been a registered dietitian with Northern Health in the islands of Haida Gwaii for 12 years. Collaborating with Jenny Cross, who is an Aboriginal Early Childhood Development Educator and Traditional Haida Knowledge Keeper in Skidegate on Haida Gwaii, Shelly is looking for opportunities to bring local and traditional food to hospital menus for environmental, economical, culturally well-being.


Jenny Cross (left) and Shelly Crack (right) on Jenny's ocean-side porch where freshly caught fish are drying.  Source: Shelly Crack

Jenny Cross (left) and Shelly Crack (right) on Jenny's ocean-side porch where freshly caught fish are drying. Source: Shelly Crack

Can you tell me more about your background and what you're hoping to achieve through Nourish?

Shelly: I'm Shelly Crack and I've been a community dietician here for the last 12 years. I've been doing a lot of work in the past 5 years around local and traditional foods in schools and other institutions. I applied to Nourish with the hope to create a hospital menu that reflects the food from Haida Gwaii, using more traditional foods that are abundantly available and prepared from traditional recipes.

Jenny: I am an early childhood educator and I work in a daycare centre which offers an aboriginal food program. Because this service facility is not licensed, we’re allowed to serve our traditional foods to Haida and non-Haida families. We also work alongside a Haida elder, Aunt Jackie, who is 92 and who comes out to our harvesting field trips where we visit our surrounding communities. The Haida people live by the seasons and we teach our families how to harvest, make and preserve many of our foods. A lot of diabetes happens within the Haida community because they have transitioned to grocery store food, so we try to offer traditional foods so that the next generations can stay true to traditional foods.

What is unique about Haida Gwaii that makes it different from other places in Canada?

When the tide is low, the table is set.

Jenny: “When the tide is low, the table is set". We have clean air and water and my house is situated right on the ocean. When the tide is low, we can walk out there and harvest dungeness crabs, dig for cockles, razor clams and find octopus. We can gather a lot of the traditional foods from the land, from wild thimbleberries and huckleberries to an abundance of deer. The good thing about living on a small island like Haida Gwaii is that everybody looks after another and gathers for events; Haida and non-Haida gather together and support each other. There is a group of elders that is preserving the Haida language so that it is taught in every school in Haida Gwaii and we can share the stories to be recorded for future generations.

Why is seeing local and traditional foods on the hospital menu so important and valuable to your patients and to the community?

Jenny: There was a time in the 70s when our facilities did serve traditional foods and fishermen brought fresh halibut and salmon to the hospitals. This was a time when my auntie who was a cook in the hospital for 20 years and they used to serve local food from the ocean. I don't know when it all changed and they got so strict about what was being served. I think we we need to go back to that. When our elders come to the hospital, they’re lonely, and to have something you aren't accustomed to adds to the lonely feeling inside. When traditional foods are served, it's soul food. You go 'mmm' when you eat and it because nourishes and feeds your spirit and makes you stronger.

Shelly: Someone I know had her first baby in the hospital and got fresh berries and salmon that had been prepared from scratch and she said that’s exactly what she needed for taking care of a new baby. With her second baby, she ended up being served a processed meal and couldn't eat it. We see families bring their loved ones food and we want to keep that happening. However, we want to also serve foods that people consider healing foods.

There is a saying that “our food is our medicine”. It’s a statement made by a Haida elder but everyone uses that quote now.

 Jenny: There is a saying that "our food is our medicine". It’s a statement made by a Haida elder but everyone uses that quote now.

Shelly: You bring value to the community and support the local economy when you buy berries from harvesters and local pickers. As idyllic as we make Haida Gwaii seem, there is also poverty here and health problems. So giving back means that you fund the positions that support harvesting from the land, and you bring meaningful work to the community. Poverty and unemployment is less of an issue when you have a robust local food system. The local hunters, farmers and gatherers benefit from this because their time working is valued by our purchasing. These are the ripple effects: local people gathering foods, processing the foods, distributing it on the island, cooking the food. This all weaves together into what is healthy for us and the community.

What are the main barriers and challenges around serving local and sustainable food in Haida Gwaii? 

Shelly: I think most institutions like hospital and schools have to follow government licensing protocols, which makes it challenging for us to source traditional and local foods. The legislation supports foods that are farmed, but when it's from the wild, institutions are wary of potential unknown risks. The relative cost of local food and its accessibility is also a challenge. Jenny described the abundance of food on the island and her life is centered around the gathering, but the hospitals don't have the facilities for sourcing this food so it ends up costing more to get it.  When you compare the cost of farmed food and compare it to the local carrot or seafood, we can’t win on a cost basis. However, we do have a growing infrastructure; for example, we have two fish processing plants and a deer processing plant that are Haida-owned and operated. We need to work with our environmental health officer and first nation authority to get permission, and build checkpoints in that process to serve local game.

What are the exciting opportunities you can see in working with local harvesters – fishers, foragers, hunters etc – and farmers?

There is a Haida saying: “everything depends on everything else.”

Jenny: There is a Haida saying: “everything depends on everything else.” Our ecosystem, the ocean, everything including the bears contribute to helping the earth. This is part of the Haida law.

Shelly: There is an economic impact and health impact but really, it’s also a way of taking care of the land. We care about the environmental impacts of industrial farming and we want to nurture and take care of this island. 

Jenny Cross's freshly harvested fish drying in her home in Haida Gwaii.  Source: Shelly Crack

Jenny Cross's freshly harvested fish drying in her home in Haida Gwaii. Source: Shelly Crack

What is your ideal future outcome with your work with Nourish?

Shelly: In my ideal world, the places on Haida Gwaii that serve food regularly will do it by season and have it be reflective of the local food that is from the island. We want to see patients getting food from the land that reflects who they are and what they are accustomed to. We want to show that you can do this; we can serve local sustainable food and keep it safe and cost-effective and there is a value to it.

Jenny: The land and the waters should be our wild grocery stories. With processed foods in the hospitals, you don't know what is in it. When we have a system that is about going to the grocery store that is our ocean and land, then we have a duty to take care of our ocean and our land. When we gather our traditional foods, we also always remember to give thanks when we gather it. If we don't give thanks, it may not come back. When we shoot a deer, we offer a prayer of thanksgiving; when we gather our berries, we give thanks to the plants for being so abundant and providing the food for the future. We don't over-harvest and we take what we need at the time. That is why we are so adamant about protecting our waters; if you destroy the ocean, you destroy who we are.