One of Jess Housty’s earliest memories was writing poems back and forth to their dad as they stayed in a cabin on the shores of remote Ellerslie Lake, in the heart of Haíɫzaqv (Heiltsuk) territories on “British Columbia’s” central coast.
Now a mother and community leader of Haíɫzaqv and mixed settler ancestry, Housty (who is also known by ’Cúagilákv or Jess H̓áust̓i in their language) has been a tireless advocate for their community. They are the executive director of the Qqs (Eyes) Project Society, a non-profit healthcare organization that provides land-based and community-based programming.
They are also an Indigenous food systems specialist who recently founded Coastal Foodways Society, a support hub for central coast communities to increase food security.
On top of all the above, they are also the co-lead of the Rights Relations Collaborative, an emerging funding organization whose aim is to reduce barriers and fund Indigenous philanthropic work in Indigenous homelands.
Now, Housty has added published poet to their list of accomplishments with the release of their first collection of poetry, Crushed Wild Mint. A celebration of the plants and animals around them as kin, the collection brings to vivid life the tastes, sounds and touch of damselflies, sap from the spruce tree and every inch of the landscape of Haíɫzaqv. While also interrogating grief and community, Housty’s collection questions what we are attending to and the relationship with land/body.
In the poem “Gwani Taught Me,” they write, “Every berry in my basket is one syllable of a prayer.”
IndigiNews spoke to Housty from their home in Bella Bella.
IndigiNews: What inspired you to write Crushed Wild Mint?
JH: I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember, but for a long time, especially through my teens, and 20s, and into my 30s, I didn’t make time for it. It felt selfish. I felt like everything I did had to have an obvious purpose and utility. Over time, I realized I needed more joy and love in my life. It’s hard to do that frontline work and that community work when you don’t have something grounding you. The purpose of writing for me was that it grounded me, so I’ve been making more space for it over the last few years than I have throughout my life. Seeing what emerges when I make room for it has been really beautiful.
Your poems are very much rooted in your traditional lands and your work on the land. How does your personal relationship with being on your traditional lands shape your poetry and your writing?
I was blessed to grow up in a family that spent a lot of time out on the land, doing lots of intergenerational work with my parents, my grandparents and my extended family, whether that was harvesting and processing traditional foods and medicines or just being out in place and exploring the territory. My sense of identity has always been hard to separate from the landscape of my homeland. It’s an honour to write about that and see how the place I come from has always inspired me.
How has the act of returning to writing poetry changed the way you view your land-based work?
It’s made me feel a lot more grounded in my work, given it a lot more nuance. When I make time to write, that gives a new lens of love and gratitude for the work that I do.
Tell me about your advocacy work. You’re very busy with the food security work, advocacy, and now writing. What keeps you going?
For me, it just feels like normal life. I struggle to think of the things I do as a job. It just feels like I’m in community, I live in community, and this is part of my reciprocal obligation to do the things that I do: to care for the territory, culture and people in our community. It feels like a real blessing to be able to do that.
Although it’s very busy and occasionally very stressful, it feels very right.
I was fortunate to grow up with my maternal grandparents close by, who played a strong hand in raising me, and my late grandfather constantly reinforced to me that you don’t get to choose whether or when you’re called to work for your community. Your community will let you know when there’s work to be done, and when you get tapped to do that work, you find good ways to show up.
I have a huge sense of security that when I need things, people will show up for me, so it’s busy but also deeply reciprocal.
How did you become involved in the issue of food sovereignty, which led you to found Coastal Foodways?
Food security became important in the wake of the Nathan Stewart oil spill in 2016. (The tug boat ran aground off the coast of Bella Bella in October 2016 and spilled more than 110,000 litres of diesel and heavy oils into the Pacific Ocean).
I served my community as incident commander during that spill response, where a substantial amount of diesel spilled into an area we used to refer to as the breadbasket of our nation, where there were dozens of marine and intertidal species that community members relied on for food. This oil spill poisoned that area.
I had a lot of deep grief and anger throughout that.
And then the pandemic made it very clear how precarious our food systems are here. We’re a very geographically remote community, and we rely on barges and ferries to bring in freight for groceries. And when global supply chains were dealing with a lot of scarcity interruptions, it became very clear we were only a couple of missed ferry deliveries away from it deeply impacting our community. It was a frightening realization for me that there’s so much we need to do to become more self-reliant and resilient regarding our food systems.
Were some of the poems in this collection more difficult to deal with emotionally and write about?
You’ll find a lot of poems about my late grandmother. At the time, I was doing a lot of the heavy writing for this collection. I was one of her primary caregivers in her final years and spent much time with her as she navigated dementia and her deteriorating health. As I completed the collection and editing process, I was working through the grief of losing her. That relationship with her, such a central figure in my life, definitely comes up a lot throughout the book.
You dedicated the book to your father and the poems that he wrote in Ellerslie. Can you tell me about that?
My dad is from Ontario, and he married into the community about 45 years ago. Over the time he’s been here, he’s developed a beautiful relationship with many of the places and spaces in our territory. I spent a lot of time out on the land with him when I was small, and we continue to do so whenever we can. One of our favourite places to go together was a cabin up in Ellerslie Lake, an incredibly beautiful lake where I have a lot of special memories, some of my earliest memories.
We kept a little notebook in the cabin, and when we were there, we would often write poems back and forth to each other. One of my earliest writing practices was up there, at that lake with my dad, writing back and forth to each other.
What do you hope people take from reading Crushed Wild Mint?
If there’s one thing I hope for folks reading it, it’s that it makes them think of the places they are connected to. Certainly, I feel very connected to my territory, and I can see how that shapes my life, identity and work. Not everyone has a homeland in the way that I have, and people have very different relationships with the places they come from. I hope it helps inspire people to think about their relationship to place in a deeper and more meaningful way.
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SD67 career fair connects Indigenous students with professional mentors
During a career fair in “Penticton” last week, Indigenous secondary school students heard from 26 mentors working in different industries — giving the Youth an opportunity to learn about various professional pathways.
The event was the first-ever Indigenous Career Fair held by School District 67’s (SD67) Indigenous Parent Group, planned in collaboration with the district’s Indigenous Education Program and held at Princess Margaret Secondary School.
It aimed to bridge the gap between post-secondary aspirations and alternative career paths, and set Indigenous Youth up for success after high school.
The Youth learned about various industries from professionals including water technicians, Youth and family workers, teachers, artists and more.
Along with covering the event as a journalist on Nov. 16, I also represented my industry as a mentor, talking to the Youth in Grades 8 to 12 about my career as a freelance storyteller contributing to IndigiNews and Global Okanagan. I shared with them what it means to me to tell these impactful stories as a member of Penticton Indian Band (PIB).
Another of the mentors, Whitney Cardenas, is also a member of PIB and works for the nation’s fire department. She told me that before she became a firefighter, attended a similar career fair to explore different job paths.
Now, she is eager to encourage the next generation of Indigenous Youth who are trying to decide which career path to choose.
“I’m pretty proud of myself to be named as one of the Indigenous role models, and I’m excited to talk to the Youth and tell them why I do what I do,” said Cardenas.
“I’m here to help encourage them to know that there are options out there and how easy it is to get into these careers and how they can make a living.”
Students at SD67’s Indigenous Career Fair at Princess Margaret Secondary School on Nov 16. Photo by Athena Bonneau
As a mother of two young children, Cardenas shared her passion for building a sense of community, emphasizing the importance of involving youth in trades for real-world experience.
“I never saw myself in this position with the fire brigade but I love it. I feel it’s something that I’m going to continue doing for a long while,” said Cardenas.
Cardenas encouraged Youth who may be interested in the trades to “come as you are and experience it firsthand” — embodying the inclusive and supportive spirit at the heart of the Indigenous Career Fair.
Dustin Hyde, the District Principal of Indigenous Education and Equity for SD67, highlighted the importance of broad representation of Indigenous workers across different sectors at the event.
“There was a parent who said, ‘my daughter wants to study medicine’ and it would be wonderful if there was an Indigenous doctor here,” said Hyde, who is Métis.
“We plan to broaden our role models next year and the hope and the dream would be that we just continue to offer more opportunities.”
Christy Tiessen, a member of the Indigenous Parent Group and organizer of the Career Fair, said the group will continue to meet monthly to find different ways to encourage Indigenous youth to see themselves in different career paths aside from only the traditional university route.
“If one kid walked out of here tonight and says, ‘I know what I want to do, that’s what I’m going to do’ and now they have a passion to move forward — that’s the goal,” said Tiessen.
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For 18-year-old syilx basketball star, sports and mental health intersect
Just down the road from where sk’ik’aycin Peter Waardenburg Jr. grew up is one of his favourite safe spaces — the Westbank First Nation’s (WFN) basketball court.
The sport is more than just a means of keeping active or staying connected with his community — it’s his go-to coping mechanism to help navigate whatever challenges may present themselves.
So whenever he needs to clear his mind and ground himself, the 18-year-old will head to outdoor facility in syilx homelands and spend time shooting hoops.
“Whenever I feel down or need to feel motivated, I’ll come out,” says Waardenburg Jr., who is a member of Lower Similkameen Indian Band.
“It allows me to get away from whatever I need, to create a space for myself.”
Waardenburg Jr. was raised by a community of basketball players. His family started Syilx Basketball long before he was born — some of his earliest memories are of him watching his older brother Treyton, his older cousins and his dad play.
In addition to Treyton, his favourites included local Syilx Basketball league legends Jesse Vissia and Skye Terbasket, with his mom even gifting him a poster of the latter for Christmas one year.
“I always liked to watch and analyze more than I liked to play when I was younger. I was a little shy,” he recalled.
But Waardenburg Jr. was playing ball by the time he was five years old. Throughout his 13-year career, he’s generally played the point guard position, sometimes switching to shooting guard if needed.
At one point, he also played competitive baseball, where his time as a pitcher taught him patience and how to keep himself calm.
“That helped me later on with basketball: being a point guard and calm on the floor, kind of leading,” he said.
Basketball has introduced him to a new world of different clubs, tournaments and communities throughout North America — he’s played with the Jr. Heat Boys Basketball Club, Okanagan Valley Elite, GW Hoops, the Similkameen Men’s team, and Syilx Basketball for both the Junior and regular All Native Basketball tournaments.
He’s also represented Team BC twice in the North American Indigenous Games (NAIG) — first in 2017, where the team placed second, and this past spring, where he was the starting point guard for the team, who finished third.
In 2022, he was part of the Syilx Basketball team that won the All Native Youth Basketball Tournament, which also saw him earn the MVP award. He competed again in this year’s Junior All Native, where he was the top scorer and was named an all-star, helping his team place second.
“Basketball allowed me to stay connected, especially to culture. With the All Native and with the Junior All Native, it brings you towards different tribes and bands,” he said.
A special highlight in his career was when he played with his older brother and his younger brother on a Men’s Similkameen Basketball team that his dad coached.
“When you’re surrounded by friends and family, and they’re playing basketball, it just makes you realize how much you’re loved,” he said.
This past August, Waardenburg Jr. was named as one of three syilx Okanagan recent high school graduates to receive a Syilx Siya Bursary Award from the Okanagan Nation Alliance (ONA), for demonstrating “a willingness to dream big for themselves, their Nation, their community, and/or their family.”
Applicants for the bursary award were tasked with writing about overcoming a difficult moment in their lives. In his application, he wrote about losing his cousins to mental health challenges and how sports — basketball in particular — helped him cope.
“I definitely believe sports help with mental health. I’ve seen it help me through the roughest times,” said Waardenburg Jr., who graduated from Mount Boucherie Secondary School.
He said while opening up about loss was difficult, he has worked through many of the emotions involved with the grieving process.
“My two bros that I lost, they played a lot of basketball. I grew up playing with them,” he said.
Now, he is working his way through his first-year studies at Okanagan College’s business administration program. Waardenburg Jr. said he’s keen on promoting Indigenous sports more — he said he’d like to teach and coach other Indigenous Youth someday.
Speaking from his own experience, he encouraged those struggling with mental health to try and pick up a sport because you never know who you’ll meet that may help you down the road.
“It can also just make you realize that there’s more to life,” he said.
“Honestly, it could save someone.”
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Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc celebrates grand opening of on-reserve grocery store: ‘a source of pride’
Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc (TteS) is celebrating a new community-owned grocery store that’s bringing food options and employment opportunities to the reserve.
The grand opening for the new Sweláps Market is set to take place on Thursday at 11 a.m., and will include speeches and a ceremonial ribbon cutting. It will also feature week-long deals and prize draws, giveaways and food samples.
The Sweláps Market is located in the Chief Louis Centre, and had its soft opening on Oct. 19.
The market is owned by TteS but is open to everyone. The store displays signs in Secwepemctsín (Secwépemc language) including a welcoming of Weyt-kp above the front door.
The language also labels each department of the store such as q̓wlem (bakery) and ts̓i7 ell swewll (meat and fish).
On the market’s website, each department is listed with audio files to hear the proper pronunciation.
Sweláps translates to “bighorn sheep” and the logo represents the sheep’s horn among the mountains and North and South Thompson rivers.
The 22,000-square-foot grocery store incorporates culture into the architecture, including a Secwépemc weaving design on the ceiling and a wooden ladder outside which resembles the entrance of a pithouse.
After the ladder was carved on-site by Charles Dumont, the owner of Coyote Contracting and a TteS band member, and his son Ryder — a ceremony was held to bless the log as it was put into place.
General manager Kara Stokes spoke about the importance of having a market in the community, given that, before now, the closest grocery store was off-reserve and across the river.
The vision for a band-owned grocery store goes back ten years, Stokes recalled, with multiple locations explored before settling on the Chief Louis Centre.
Before the store’s opening, Kúkwpi7 Rosanne Casimir expressed high hopes for the store’s impact.
“This project will bring food closer to home, create employment, and further strengthen our economy,” she said in a community statement. “It will be a source of pride as leadership is fully implementing a community driven opportunity.”
Before opening, the public was kept up to date through updates and upcoming events listed on the market’s website.
A members-only job fair was held in September to give band members a chance to explore the job opportunities before opening it up to the public.
Between full-time and part-time job openings, the market employs a total of 65 people in management and frontline positions.
Stokes explained that the job openings are a helpful addition for TteS.
“That opens up the opportunity for a lot of people who live in the area to be able to work in the area,” she said.
Since the store opened to the public last month, Stokes said she has served customers of all ages and varying family sizes. The market is currently open seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Sundays.
“Everybody’s been coming in and shopping and it’s really amazing to see the support from the community to be able to provide this service,” she said.
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