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Learning the land: restoration and education collide on the Campbell River estuary

Wei Wai Kum First Nation project passing the baton of environmental stewardship to seven generations

Lyric John-Cliffe can forage for berries, food and medicinal plants, hop into the marshes, hunt wild geese and probably even become friends with a grizzly if she came across one.

“I love being in the bushes,” said the 13-year-old Campbell River area resident, whispering a side note that she would rather spend “all her time” out bush-whacking than being in school.

Beaming with excitement, Lyric navigates a trail adjacent the Myrt Thompson Trail in Campbell River with the sheer confidence of someone who knows the terrain intimately.

The trail through Wei Wai Kum First Nation land leads to the Campbell River estuary where the band manages a restoration project.

The pineapple weed-laden path gives way to dense sedge grass-lined banks at the mouth of the estuary. Brown and green colours rise against a backdrop of mossy wooden fencing that appears to fade in to the horizon. The vision seems almost ethereal.

Lyric picks up a pineapple weed and squeezes it between her fingers.

“You can tell by its sweet pineapple-like-scent that it’s the correct plant,” she says, knowledge gleaned from her uncle, coastal guardian watchman, Cory Cliffe.

Under Cory’s tutelage, Lyric and her cousins began honing their environmental stewardship skills at an early age and developed a deep connection to nature. They would accompany Cory on his “patrol duties” to the estuary where he showed them how to apply traditional knowledge in conservation.

Peeling cedar, making medicinal salves out of plants like the devil’s bulb, learning to pick berries the “right way,” absorbing traditional songs and dances and what they’re meant for — these are some of the valuable lessons the children learned on these journeys.

As a result the young ones became passionate about the Wei Wai Kum’s estuary restoration project.

“Since the estuary is close to home, sometimes the children come by themselves and look out too,” Cory said.

As a guardian watchman, Cory follows a “seven-generation” approach when it comes to his environmental projects.

“It comes down to an old belief that we plan ahead for seven generations in such a way that if they are not enjoying the same benefits–like salmon, berries,etc. –then it means that we screwed up,” he said.

Last month, Lyric and Cory were at the estuary to make an immersive video series showcasing traditional knowledge for the Campbell River Art Gallery. Armed with a go pro, the duo spent time wading through the marshes, exchanging stories and songs of the Laich-kwil-tach people.

Wei Wai Kum Nation’s estuary restoration project has been a work in progress for a couple of years and Cory played an instrumental role in reviving the area.

They used traditional knowledge to restore the estuary and preserve its ecosystem. This is seen in weirs established using recycled alder poles as the most sustainable option.

“Willows disintegrated quickly when we tried using it earlier and cedar, unless smoked, leaks tannin into the water which is not good for the nearby fish habitat,” said Cory.

The barriers keep geese and inquisitive kayakers out of sensitive ecosystems. There are hundreds of geese in the estuary and their numbers are managed by harvesting them for food.

“An entire section of the area turns in to a factory-like set up as we begin harvesting these birds during summer, ” said Cory, adding this year due to COVID-19 that didn’t happen.

Introducing native plants was another part of the restoration project. Which explains the lush sedge grass (also known as carex grass), along the banks. Sedge grass not only prevents the river banks from receding but is also an excellent source of protein for bears, geese and ungulates in the area.

“The grass is especially important for bears to get their digestive systems rolling in the spring when they wake up from their hibernation,” said Cory.

At the estuary, Lyric joins Cory in singing a traditional paddle song– which was sung by Indigenous people back in the days to indicate that their canoes were approaching shores in peace and not for war.

For Lyric, stewardship has always been an intrinsic part of the culture that she grew up in. One of her earliest memories– the one that compelled her to “come back again and again” – is that of drumming on a canoe trip five years ago.

“It was empowering to see all those men and women paddling and singing with such strength,” said Lyric.

Cory believes that integrating culture into learning is the best way for children to begin environmental stewardship.

“That’s what made environmental work so important to me–knowing the history and inherited responsibility that we share with our ancestors. We might have lost a lot of our history through colonization but our connection is still here when we walk through the land,” he said.

The connection to the land and culture is what Cory tries to instill into the children as a mentor, “because once they go in there with their heart into it, everything else is just a bonus.”

“At the end, stewardship is knowing that you made a solid effort for your descendents.”

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About the Author: Binny Paul

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