On January 23, a very special dinner and event took place in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES), when between 450 and 500 residents of the DTES had a home-cooked meal of chili, rice, moose soup, ground elk, bannock, and dessert It’s the second such dinner held in the DTES; the first was in January 2017, and both originated from an idea that was developed by members of the Secwepemc (Shuswap) First Nation in June 2016.
That was when Bonaparte Band chief Ryan Day, Johnny Perry—a former Bonaparte resident who for many years has been a support worker for Vancouver Native Housing in the DTES—and Perry’s father talked about what they could do to help DTES residents in January. Johnny Perry knew that was the best time to organize something, after the Christmas period had ended and people had the mid-winter blues.
They held a dinner in January 2017 featuring First Nations food, and also distributed more than 600 jars of preserved traditional foods such as moose meat, deer meat, salmon, and berries. The food had been harvested by members of the Secwepemc First Nation, who had been asked via a Facebook page to set some of their harvest aside, in the summer and fall of 2016.
It was a way of connecting many of the First Nations residents of the DTES with their land. “Connection with the land is very important,” says Perry. “There’s a strong connection between food and culture. People come to the urban community for various reasons, and can’t get back to where they came from. It’s really important for them to have that traditional food, which they don’t get in Vancouver.”
He notes that because of last summer’s wildfires, they were unable to do the harvesting and preserving of the previous year. “But it [the dinner] was an important event to carry on.” Day and Perry put together a website about the event for the Secwepemc First Nation, and when they could not participate this year they asked urban community members for assistance.
Potluck Catering, Trumps Bakery, and Vancouver Community College all stepped up to the plate, donating food, which they also cooked, with the assistance of community members. The dinner was held outdoors at the corner of Hastings and Carroll Streets at the heart of the DTES, with the DTES Market supplying tables, chairs, and tents.
“There were lots of ‘thank yous’ and gratitude from everyone,” says Perry, who notes that while there are a lot of Aboriginal community members in the DTES, the event was open to all. “We just wanted to spread a little kindness throughout the community. People there carry around so much trauma and pain every day, and we wanted to do something for them.”
In lieu of the preserved food distributed in 2017, clothing, toiletries, and blankets supplied by the Union Gospel Mission were given out.
“I’ve worked in the Downtown Eastside for 15 years, and I think a lot of people have a misconception about it being a dangerous place,” says Perry. “People there really pull together, and are kind to one another. They couldn’t believe people would do this just because.”
Perry plans on having another dinner in January 2018, and hopes to be able to have the preserved foods there again.
“I wish we could do this more often, but we really see the biggest need in January. It really adds a bright spot at this time of year.
“It took a lot of time and energy to set up, but everyone came together. It was definitely a real community event, to do something positive for the community and honour those we’ve lost.”