Hinge Park, on the corner of First Avenue and Columbia St., has a variety of native plants growing in the heart of a concrete jungle. Sharon Nadeem

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Vancouver's Indigenous community fights to save native plants at risk

CBC News
By Sharon Nadeem, Seher Asaf, CBC News, Published May 7, 2017

Leonard Leboucan is crushing a tiny brown piece of a bark-like plant with a pocket knife on his office desk.

"There needs to be more natural remedies," says Leboucan, who is Métis and works at the Aboriginal Friendship Center in downtown Vancouver.

Leboucan uses this bitter-tasting plant to treat his colds and coughs. The plant is called rat-root or ek"splo-ra´shun, and has been used as an herbal medicine by the Chipewyan people for centuries.

Rat root is one of the thousands of plants native to B.C. that have historically been used by Indigenous people to aid in every aspect of life, from medicines to weaving blankets.

But now, many of these plants face various urban pressures, from development to competing with invasive species for space. According to the Native Plant Society of B.C., there are 312 plants in the province alone that are "red-listed" — meaning they're endangered, threatened or have been destroyed.

That includes plants like Seneca-snakeroot, which derives its common name from the Seneca First Nation's use of it as a treatment for snake bites.

In 2008, the B.C. Conservation Data Centre assigned the root a "red" status with a conservation priority of two, one being the highest.

The plant, used by other First Nations to treat respiratory problems, headaches and stomach aches, is threatened by overgrazing in grasslands where it normally grows.

A tiny park in central Vancouver surrounded by skyscrapers, a stadium and a concrete parking lot looks like the kind of place that would be hostile to indigenous plants.

But to Métis herbalist Lori Snyder, Hinge Park is a "treasure trove." She visits the park to fill her basket with indigenous plants, and conducts tours to share her knowledge of traditional medicines.

"If we sat down with our grandmother or great-grandmother, she'd say that when someone got sick we'd find a plant that would help bring them back to health," said Snyder.

She grew up in Squamish, B.C., where plants were always part of her life. She remembers winding her way down to the woods near Alice Lake, which began a lifelong journey to learn about the roots, shrubs and trees surrounding her.

"That was when I first learnt who they were. These were all native plants," Snyder said.

Snyder started learning about plants from elders and professors. She discovered that each plant has a purpose — some help in curing colds, others treat pain.

"Our health is really tied into our environment and we really need to tap into plants native to here," said Snyder.

"I like to remind people that plants are our medicines and can clean the inside of the body. We need to put plants in to keep the body healthy."

Snyder runs workshops to help people identify plants that they can use in their daily lives, whether for traditional medicines or food. The workshops encourage people to grow these plants in their own backyards.

"We don't need to go to the forest to do our foraging if we start to plant this in our community gardens. We can bring it down to our back alleyways and boulevards. We could even have it on the edges of parks."

Leboucan echoes Snyder's belief that sharing plant knowledge is an integral part of his culture. He is currently teaching his seven-year-old son how to gather native plants and handle them with care.

"You get into the urban life and you end up neglecting to do things like going back to nature," said Leboucan. "We should be doing more."

But it's not always easy for Indigenous herbalists to carve out natural spaces in the city.

Cease Wyss, an ethnobotanist from Squamish First Nation, started Harmony Garden — a community garden — eight years ago with the aim of sustaining her community. Located on the Capilano reserve in West Vancouver, Wyss urges community members to gather their daily produce from the garden instead of heading to the grocery store.

Along with carrots, kale and potatoes, she grows native plants like red willow, blackberry and hazelnut. But growing plants isn't the problem in the garden.

"I came here two weeks ago to get the garden ready for spring and then there was a pile of garbage that the community likes to leave. I had to dig all that and throw it out," says Wyss.

Wyss's garden has been vandalized and tagged with graffiti, and her garden tools are regularly stolen, she said.

"I had a nervous breakdown four years ago because I spent three weeks pulling garbage out of the pond. I had to walk barefoot every day because it's filled with a really delicate plant that is almost extinct."

Despite those challenges, Wyss hasn't stopped nurturing her garden.

"People come here and say, 'This is an old neglected garden.' But the birds don't think so and the bees certainly don't think so. This here is a food source for all kinds of species," said Wyss, who introduced bees in Harmony Garden in 2014 to help sustain it.

She says listening to the birds — and watching children and elders enjoy the garden — makes it all worth it.

"I do it all for the children. They are our future."

Snyder agrees it is essential for future generations to be able to access natural spaces in the city, such as Hinge Park.

"It's a wonderful place where we can go and harvest — instead of going up to the mountains."

The series "tem:éxw — Stories of Land" is produced in partnership with the reporting in Indigenous community course at UBC's graduate school of journalism, at www.Indigenousreporting.com.

Vancouver's Indigenous community fights to save native plants at risk