WAHRS at work on the Farm: An interview with Martin Johnson

wahrsSince 2005 the Vancouver Native Health Society has been developing a Garden Project at the UBC Farm. The Garden Project consists of one acre of land on traditional Musqueam territory and provides urban First Nations, Metis and Inuit from East Vancouver the opportunity to connect with the land and enjoy traditional foods. Members of the Western Aboriginal Harm Reduction Society (WAHRS) are regular participants in the project, and the Downtown East caught up with Martin Johnson to learn more about it. – Editors

The UBC Farm Project has been a regular part of my week for the past few months. Every Tuesday, up to 5 WAHRS members meet at VANDU at 8:30 am, rain or shine, and take the bus to UBC. When we get there those who oversee the garden provide us with breakfast and coffee. But before we share food, we take a moment for a smudge (purification) ceremony to help clear our minds of day-to-day troubles and focus on our time ahead. Then it’s off to work in the garden or in the kitchen.

Each time the work is different. We help set up the germination process for the seeds, or transplant them into the garden; sometimes we pull weeds, harvest vegetables or pick berries. We cleared blackberry bushes to prepare the ground for a teepee, but then decided to put it up in a different location. It was a new experience for me putting up the teepee, and I learned how it was done.

After a few hours of work, we eat lunch together with others who are involved in the project. The food is amazing: fresh fish (halibut, salmon) cooked in traditional ways, vegetables from the garden, and berries that are sometimes added to the salad. I grew up on a farm in Richmond, so it’s good to get reconnected to the earth. Meeting other people and sharing knowledge and skills is a valuable part of the experience as well.

In the spring, more than a dozen WAHRS members went out for a Blessing Ceremony that connected us to the farm and to our traditions. I started out as a trainee, but now I’m a supervisor. It means signing people up, passing out bus tickets, making sure everyone gets out and back, and doing payouts.

The part I like most is just getting out of the Downtown Eastside. For those who go out to the farm, there’s a policy of no drinking or drug use during the time we’re there. For me, this means I can stay clean for the day; it gives me a break from my normal patterns of use. I’ve also lost friends and street family in the past 6 months, and getting out to the farm helps me clear my head and takes my mind off things in my life and in the neighbourhood. So getting away for a day every week is just what I need.

Recently I took a camera out to the farm with me, and brought back photos of it to show at the weekly WAHRS meeting. I’m hoping that if others can see what it’s like out there, they will want to participate too. I’m glad WAHRS has given me the opportunity to be involved. Getting out of the city, working the land, meeting other people, learning new skills, and eating really good food can be refreshing to your body, mind and spirit.


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