By Vivian Cheung, Operations & Digital Engagement Specialist

As you may know, this year is a time to reflect and return back to our roots by bringing folks throughout these ten growing seasons who have helped shaped Fresh Roots to be where we are today, as staff, teachers, participants, while also taking the chance to celebrate who they are today through our 10th Anniversary blog interview series called ‘Back to Our Roots’. We’re on a journey to reconnect with these rad members in our Fresh Roots community and bring us all on a blast from the past.

In 2016, Fresh Roots partnered with Suwa’lkh School to develop what is now the Suwa’lkh Medicine Garden, Healing Forest, and Orchard. One of the key leads in making this happen was Malcolm Key, the Aboriginal Youth Program Coordinator at Suwa’lkh at the time. Currently, Malcolm is an Indigenous Education Enhancement Worker with the Vancouver School Board, working to design, develop, and implement outdoor educational programs through an Indigenous lens, which includes working with the LunchLAB team at Norquay Elementary. For our next interview, Jaimie, our Suwa’lkh Farm and Education Lead, sat down with Malcolm to discuss about the origins of Suwa’lkh and Fresh Roots partnership, how the site has changed but continues to impact Indigenous youth, a thoughtful exchange on stewardship in the past, the present, and looking forward to the future.

Malcolm Key with students in the Suwa’lkh Outdoor Classroom

I have a few questions that they would like me to ask for the 10th anniversary and how you’ve started at Suwa’lkh. The first one is not related to anything Suwa’lkh at all – what vegetable do you feel like today? 

I feel like a beet, as in the “beat” must go! 

How did you learn about and get connected with Fresh Roots? 

That’s a good question. It takes me back to when we started the process, the idea about building out an Indigenous garden… The Principal of Indigenous Education at the time there saw that my background was in outdoor, adventure-based learning and so we matched up my skill set to facilitate an outdoor education program…

One piece of that work was a partnership with Outward Bound Canada to facilitate outdoor adventure-based learning, but not all kids want to go off into the mountains, onto the rivers, or into the ocean for those types of adventures…This was where the idea about creating the Suwa’lkh Medicine Garden started – let’s make opportunities to connect to the land as accessible as possible and let’s start thinking about building out a garden that would provide opportunities for youth to learn how to grow food, learn how to utilize flora and fauna for their medicinal, spiritual and nutritional purposes.

I started researching around and started seeing that there was something going on with the Vancouver School District, with an organization called Fresh Roots. …We went to Van Tech to see what this farm-to-school program was doing with Fresh Roots and instantly got pretty inspired about that work, that wow, this type of collaboration is something that is very successful. I was really inspired by the partnership that was created between the school district and an external community-based organization… Once you could see that was doable, then it was like, okay, we have to start sourcing funding to start purchasing capital investment for site preparation of the space at Suwa’lkh, and then also things like the greenhouse.  

We needed somebody as a year-round steward of the garden and somebody that could help facilitate the components of the garden program in partnership with the school in partnership with the Indigenous Education department there, so Fresh Roots was an ideal partner for that. They had expertise in navigating through a school district, experience working with the Vancouver School District at the time, and expertise in facilitating gardening programs and all those types of things that go with it…

I’m certainly happy to know that years later, that Suwa’lkh is still there. Suwa’lkh School’s Medicine Garden is such an integral part of the department there and the Coquitlam School District. You mention that the salmon returning is just super incredible to know, that all those things that we thought about all those years ago, to see them actually happening, that salmon are returning, that nature is playing its role in all this and returning to the ways that it’s always done for eons. 

Malcolm teaching about sacred plant medicines with Vancouver SOYL youth

It’s awesome to keep hearing how this small space has grown over the past to what it is now. It’s so amazing to see!

…It was interesting coming back into the school district after COVID and seeing how much social anxiety there was, how much disconnect to each other because of that experience. A lot of youth suffered a lot for just that kind of social connectedness with each other, that sense of belonging. I really see now how important it is for our youth to get a connection to the land because it is such a common denominator for everybody. 

You’re not measured by your socioeconomic circumstances. You’re not measured by any other way. You are just connected to the land. That’s such an important thing, that kids can feel like they’re accepted just on that ground alone. That’s so important now as we move forward beyond COVID and having a healing space that’s land-based. It’s so important for our kids at this time of where we’re at. 

That’s a great segue into the next question. It’s about the healing forest – how and why did you want to establish the forest? 

It was interesting because when you look at babies and children, there is a natural gravitation towards water. Water is such a life source. It’s something that we have a connection to.

Once in a while, I would poke into the forest at Suwa’lkh to look at the beautiful creek there. I remember looking into the forest in June and it would be hot out in the park and grass area, but you go into the forest, it’s nice and cool. It just had a feeling of nurturing your spirit in there. Initially, I started thinking that it would be really nice to do something in this forest that the kids can go in there, maybe with an interpretation trail that they can walk around. It’s a place for the kids if school is challenging, they can go out and reset, and just be out in the forest and take a time out or just take some space. It would be a place where they can just go and feel like they’re grounded on Mother Earth. 

There was this vision to create an outdoor classroom. I’m an adult and I get annoyed being in a classroom that’s fluorescent lights and all this kind of stuff. To me, that’s almost a distraction. There’s all this stuff on the walls and I would feel like you’re more focused when you’re in the forest, so it just seems like a more natural space to be at. Then again, there’s a sense of calm when you’re in the forest. That is a nice kind of energy to create if you’re doing educational classes.

…It was nice to see that those things came to fruition and that forest is being utilized as it is now, that the salmon regeneration program is well underway. Seeing this become as successful as it is really something! 

Yeah, some of them even now, you can see them fidgeting a lot in the classroom and one of the first things that they’re asked is “Do you need to walk in the forest?”. Once they’re in there, it’s like an instant calm comes over them and it’s so amazing to see. 

When we realize that we have two mothers, the mother that brought you into this world, and then you have a Mother Earth, and that you can go and be with Mother Earth for a little while, it is such a nurturing and healing kind of experience that a lot of people can’t put their fingers on it. There is something there that gives them a sense of calm.

Suwa’lkh student offering cedar to the salmon stream

The last question which is the reason why it all started – what is the impact have you’ve seen with Fresh Roots since this partnership started and even today? 

Fresh Roots, the organization and their vision for the work that they do, is such an inspiration. They are over the target when it comes to the work that I see that’s important, the work that I’ve done in the past and also the work that I’m continuing to do now. I’ve actually been replicating quite a bit of the work that I did at Coquitlam now with the Vancouver School District, so that includes a partnership with Outward Bound Canada here, but it also now includes a new partnership with Fresh Roots out here in Vancouver. What’s really full circle in many ways is that it was the Coquitlam Indigenous Education Department going to Vancouver to see what Vancouver’s doing with the farm-to-school program and this past June, I’m now bringing Vancouver School District’s Indigenous Education department out to see what Coquitlam has been doing.

Just to see this whole full cycle play its course is really something. The work that’s happened out at Coquitlam is now something that is what our department here is looking to replicate here, within the Vancouver School District. It really speaks to the power of a partnership alliance and a coalition. When you get the right partners together that have a shared vision of work that they want to achieve together, the benefits that each partner is able to contribute to the work, it magnifies it even more. It compounds it. 

For Fresh Roots, we’re able to provide access to a lot of students that they’re able to facilitate their knowledge with. From the school district perspective, having a partner like Fresh Roots coming in and utilizing their expertise and stewarding these types of garden programs, it can’t be done by the school district alone. It needs to have this type of a partnership arrangement and Fresh Roots is a premier organization on the West Coast of Canada that’s involved in this type of work. Anytime I think of that type of work, I think that Fresh Roots has to be involved in it. 

Amazing! Is there anything else that you want to share? 

… There’s a lot of feeling that there’s a sense of powerlessness that we can’t change things in this world. As we’re experiencing first hand climate change and all these things, I just think that if kids are able to grow some salmon, put it in a river and see a few years later that they’re returning, that’s an empowering experience for them that they feel that they have the power to change things. That’s so valuable for their journey going forward that that will engage them in their future to continue to try to find ways that they can make positive changes in this world. 

Baby salmon about to be released

In the spring, when we release them, we still have some of the youth with us at the school who did that and now that we’re seeing them return, they’re very excited.

Jaimie: They want to go out and check if more have come. Are they still there? Are they still alive? Are they swimming? That’s great to see that they want to go and check. They really care about what’s happening out there and it’s so great to see because at the time when they were in the classroom, they kind of were like, why are we doing this and it’s hard to explain when they’re tiny eggs. There’s nothing to physically show them at that point. The goal is that they’re going to return and the whole thing is going to start again. 

Now that they know this is why we did this, they’re super excited about the forest and what they can do to make more people care about the forest like picking up their garbage. They’ve already got a whole bunch of sign ideas that they want to put in there to let people know what we’re doing. It’s great to see how engaged they are with the forest now. 

Malcolm: This is the business that we’re in – to ignite a sense of passion for learning for our youth and hopefully, that passion for learning is a motivation for them to want to push on into some other things and realize that their learning in their high school years is just the start of a lifelong learning of whatever it is that they’re pursuing in their lives for their careers and whatnot. That type of work to motivate our youth, to become learners and want to learn more and do more, that’s what still drives me today. If we can get our youth out there and fully engaged, then we’re doing our jobs. 

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