How did Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations Unite for Food Sovereignty?

The Traditional Food Gathering Event Drew more than 250 participants together, facilitating in-person meetings that are often challenging for remote community residents.
The Traditional Food Gathering Event drew more than 250 participants together, facilitating in-person meetings that are often challenging for remote community residents.

Ahousaht-led effort fosters collaboration among 14 nuučaan̓uł (Nuu-chah-nulth) First Nations on a new food sovereignty strategy.

For Ahousaht First Nation residents, a trip to the grocery store isn’t a simple matter. It cannot be added to their daily work commutes and it’s unlikely to fit into their weekly schedule. Their community is on the Southeast corner of Flores Island, surrounded by Clayoquot Sound and the stunning UNESCO Biosphere region. The landscape is a temperate rainforest, defined by towering Western hemlock, Western red cedar, and Sitka spruce trees that represent some of the rarest old-growth forests; these coastal temperate rainforests cover less than 1% of the planet.

The protected waters of Clayoquot Sound and the open Pacific Ocean are rich in marine life. Orca, humpback, and grey whales are frequently seen, along with sea otters, sea lions, and a seemingly endless variety of seabirds. Local fish populations – salmon, halibut, cod, and rockfish – are strong, but not as abundant as in the past.

The area and their entire traditional territory are beautiful. It’s also incredibly remote from major transportation networks and widespread services.

The priority is on reacquiring a way of life where our members never worry about where healthy food comes from. – wickaninnish (Cliff Atleo), Ahousaht Elder.

The closest grocery store is the Coop Food Store in Tofino, British Columbia, which is 20 kilometers away. Aside from personal watercraft, most residents rely on expensive water taxi services. There are no scheduled times, so residents must either charter a water taxi ($250-350, one-way) or carefully coordinate with 10-12 other community members to reduce the cost to $30 per person.

Ahousaht is just one of 14 nuučaan̓uł communities spread across Vancouver Island and its surrounding islands. While some of these communities, including Toquaht and Yuulu?il?ath First Nations near Ucluelet, and Tseshaht and Hupačasath First Nations near Port Alberni, enjoy easier access to grocery stores, most do not. Ka:’yu:’k’t’h’ Che:k’tls7et’h’ and Uchucklesaht are both only accessed by boat or float plane, while Ditidaht, Ehattesaht, and Nuchatlaht are located along rough forest service roads without regular public transportation.

Concern about food sovereignty has been growing for years, due to increased cost of access. Changes to the ecosystem due to climate change have played a significant role, as well. Employment opportunities outside of their home communities have also drawn many people away from their traditional territories.

Nitanis Desjarlais, Traditional Foods Activator with Ahousaht First Nation, setup a table showcasing traditional foods harvested from across the Ahousaht First Nation Territory.
Nitanis Desjarlais, Traditional Foods Activator with Ahousaht First Nation, setup a table showcasing traditional foods harvested from across the Ahousaht First Nation Territory.

“At a Nation level, it’s about restoring our habitats and territory,” says Chief n̓aasʔałuk, John Rampanen, Ahousaht First Nation. “We need to start accessing these landscapes and using our traditional food systems again.”

Over the past four years, these concerns have been amplified. Covid-19 struck the first blow. Prolonged shutdowns made traveling between communities more difficult or, in some cases, impossible. Many First Nation communities, fearing the consequence of widespread infections, closed access. While community members could travel for essential needs, every trip was carefully considered. Supply chain disruptions also sent food prices skyrocketing in rural communities’ grocery stores.

Next, the Cameron Lake Wildfire closed Highway 4, cutting off access to Port Alberni and the Pacific Rim communities for most of the 2023 summer season.

“The highway closure really showed our continued vulnerability,” said Rampanen. “It also started an immediate action toward prioritizing our food security.”

Since the Covid-19 pandemic began, the Nuu-chah-nulth Food and Nutrition Sovereignty Network has hosted regular Zoom meetings to discuss strategies and opportunities. When representatives from all nuučaan̓uł First Nations gave unanimous support to host an in-person event, Ahousaht stepped forward to lead the project.

Volunteer moderators guided round table discussions following Dawn Morrison’s keynote speech regarding First Nation food security.
Volunteer moderators guided round table discussions following Dawn Morrison’s keynote speech regarding First Nation food security.

The Traditional Food Gathering event took place March 21-22, 2024, at the Maht Mahs facility on Tseshaht territory near Port Alberni. Its primary focus was to establish and implement a comprehensive strategy to advance food sovereignty in nuučaan̓uł communities.

“We wanted to build opportunities to bring communities together and collaborate,” said Nitanis Desjarlais, Traditional Foods Activator, Ahousaht First Nation, “so we extended invitations to Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw, Coast Salish, and other remote Vancouver Island community members.”

Although Ahousaht led the initiatives, it was hosted on Tseshaht First Nation to alleviate travel expenses and attract a greater diversity of participants. The Tseshaht and Ahousaht hosted an opening ceremony in the Tseshaht Big House, setting the cultural tone for the event. Keynote speaker Dawn Morrison, from Tk̓emlúps Te Secwépemc First Nation, then led a discussion about creating Indigenous Food Security and Sovereignty. Her presentation ended with an opportunity for all 250 people in attendance to contribute to roundtable-style discussions that helped inform the strategy development.

With the event happening just days after the annual herring spawn across the Comox Valley and off the West Coast, Hasiikwaayak (Josh Charleson) led a more hands-on session.

“I learned how to catch herring, process it, and smoke it from my family,” says Charleson, “and it’s important to share with the next generation so they’ll have skills they can use.”

Hesquiaht First Nation member Hasiikwaayak (Josh Charleson) taught participants the traditional method to prepare and smoke herring.
Hesquiaht First Nation member Hasiikwaayak (Josh Charleson) taught participants the traditional method to prepare and smoke herring.

Charleson now resides in Port Alberni, but as the Relationships Director with the Coastal Restoration Society, he remains invested in maintaining a healthy ocean ecosystem. He fondly remembers his youth; he grew up in Hesquiaht, the northernmost nuučaan̓uł community in Clayoquot Sound.

“I’ve enjoyed an incredible bounty from our local waters,” said Charleson, “so I hope people in an urban setting learn the skills and appreciate food that doesn’t come from the grocery store.”

Qwustenuxun (Jared Williams), a Quw’utsun member and Indigenous Foods Warrior, was the keynote speaker on day two. He’s dedicated to not just preserving BC First Nation’s food traditions, but also creating access. He’s building a commercial kitchen alongside his smokehouse to meet modern food safety standards, while maintaining the ancient preservation processes learned from his elders. He hopes the kitchen will be completed this year, creating the opportunity to share Indigenous foods in non-traditional settings like hospitals and schools.

Qwustenuxun (Jared Williams) created and uses this diagram to connect traditional foods with Indigenous Culture.
Qwustenuxun (Jared Williams) created and uses this diagram to connect traditional foods with Indigenous Culture.

He also outlined the clear connection between teaching the language and toolmaking to cooking and eating traditional foods.

“If we don’t eat smoked salmon,” said Williams, “then none of this happens. If we can eat our traditional foods everywhere, then we can rescue the language, the environment, and who we are.”

Rampanen echoed this sentiment during his closing remarks, too, emphasizing the connection between food and culture.

“Many of us only know the foods by their traditional names,” said Rampanen. “We see them as part of our identity and transferring that knowledge to our young people is part of our healing process.”

With their Food Sovereignty Strategy being created through collaboration with nearly 250 participants during the Traditional Food Gathering, positive changes will soon reach across Vancouver Island to even the most remote communities.

“We are entering into a period of prolonged strengthening,” says Rampanen. “It’s the early stages of absolute food security.”


Island Coastal Economic Trust invested in this initiative with Ahousaht First Nation for its focus on strengthening food security and agrifood.
The Trust invested in this initiative with Ahousaht First Nation for its focus on strengthening food security and agrifood.

Island Coastal Economic Trust invested $30,000 with the Ahousaht First Nation through the Investment Readiness Program towards a total project budget of $152,000. The Traditional Food Gathering event helped establish and implement a comprehensive and sustainable strategy to advance food sovereignty for Ahousaht First Nation and other nuučaan̓uł communities.

Once complete, the food security strategy will be publicly available, posted on IndigenousFoodGathering.com.