When Indigenous health care provider Muriel Victor was a young child, she was brought along with the adults to harvest from the forest.
Wild berries, flowers, roots, bark and plants that some people consider weeds — all were gathered up through different seasons and turned into food and medicine to be shared among the community.
Victor, a Stō:ló elder from Cheam First Nation whose traditional name is Konisiya, says harvesting the forest and land is about even more than feeding and healing. It’s just a part of who she is.
“It’s a feeling,” she says, when she walks the land to gather a harvest. “We do it every year. It’s a part of us and I was taught this from a little girl.”
So, the news that glyphosate is still being used in forests that are harvested by Indigenous people, from Squamish to Hope, causes her concern. She relies on her niece, a fellow certified herbalist Carrielynn Victor, to keep her up to date on spraying information.
“It’s been kind of a long-time concern,” she says.
But the areas that are sprayed aren’t well published or well marked by officials, and the newest five-year pest management plan that outlines the use of glyphosate states that sprayed areas are unsuitable for cultural uses for two to four years.
“Carrielynn will say, ‘don’t go here or there, it’s sprayed.’ Otherwise, how am I supposed to know?” she says. “We don’t need any more contaminants than we are already living with. Why are we doing this to our environments?”
She was once the health care manager at Cheam, and is now the traditional wellness director for the Chilliwack Division of Family Practice. As such, she works with patients and physicians to bring together the best in Indigenous healing and Western medicine.
That means working with naturally found flora like Oregon grape, elderberry berries and their flowers, maple flower, mullein, thimble berry, cedar bark, and so much more.
“If the medical system isn’t working for them, we can try traditional ways,” she said, and often with success. “And that’s what I do here. To get both worlds to work with each other in a good way.”
It would be “crushing” to her to lose the ability to safely harvest the land, she said.
“And that’s my right,” she said. “That makes me feel good, to go out on the land and harvest.”
It’s something that brings her back to her childhood, and does the same for the elders in her life.
“Whenever I’m feeling down, even if I don’t harvest anything, I’ll see what I can find,” she said. “It’s uplifting. I feel it helps me and my spirit, and the goal is to bring back a nice harvest.”
And then when she gets home, she says, she is kept busy working with her hands, ensuring the harvest is preserved for those who will need it.
“That’s the feeling, and then to wipe that away,” she says, her words drifting off.
Jam-making from berries in the wild is also a rite of passage for young Indigenous children, and something that is carried on through generations.
“I was told we do this because this is who we are,” she said. And despite not being a jam eater herself, as a part of the community she still harvests berries and makes her own jam. She uses it as gifts in ceremony, and gives to those who need it.
She said the younger generations of Stō:ló people are picking up on harvesting and making it their own, by making items like fruit leather, for example. For example, while fruit leather is a traditional food, it’s one that has been commercialized and is being made traditionally once again.
But with aerial glyphosate spraying, many feel that way of life is endangered.
The time for public comment on the pest management plan, through BC Timber Sales in Chilliwack, is now over. Many were pleading with the government to extend the feedback period to allow more harvesters of the land to review it.
But Victor doesn’t hold out a lot of hope that their voices will be heard, saying that she’s used to hearing “broken promises” when it comes to forest management.
To read the draft version of the pest management plan, click here. The area within the plan covers Stō:ló, St’át’imc, Nlaka’pamux, Squamish, and Tsleil Waututh territories.
Forestry minister Katrine Conroy has not responded to two requests to comment on the plan.
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