For Brent McDonald, it all started with a single goat, but we will get to that later.
As a third generation Kootenay local, Brent has a unique perspective of Nelson in particular. Over the years, Brent has witnessed major shifts in not only the city’s physical landscapes, but in its cultural views as well.
“Nelson has changed a lot since I was a kid,” Brent states very matter of factly.
And it is true, Nelson has seen many changes since Brent’s grandparents first settled along the mountainsides of Uphill Nelson with other Italian immigrant families over fifty years ago.
“People don’t always remember that there was [and still is] a large Italian community here.”
In fact, the Nelson Italian Canadian Society, which was founded in 1972, is fast approaching its fiftieth anniversary.
There is an interesting sort of dichotomy in Nelson and perhaps that is why this town feels vastly different from the other communities in the Kootenays. Nelson has gone through a noticeable transformation that many locals ascribe to the tourism culture that has turned Nelson into a destination town. With housing costs soaring in bigger cities like Vancouver and Calgary, Nelson in particular has become a hotspot with few affordable houses available for rent or to buy.
For Brent, it has been hard watching the city change. He begins to speak about the competitive real estate market in Nelson, and how it has negatively affected the community: “Some of these family homes were once passed down through generations. It’s sad to see them torn down or renovated, turned into something completely different… Some of these houses should be turned into museums for the knowledge that they hold.”
Of course, Brent is speaking about the sentimental value these homes possess, something that seems to vanish as big city architecture begins to replace the historical charm of some of these beloved family homes.
Still, Brent looks back fondly on his childhood growing up in Nelson, especially the time spent with his grandparents. Their house was a family home, one of those quintessential Nelson homes with a large yard and ample space for gardens to grow. Brent’s parents weren’t gardeners themselves, not in the traditional sense at least.
“My father was a hobby-hunter, that was the extent of his connection to land.” Brent’s father didn’t hunt to provide for his family, hunting was mostly something he did with friends on the weekend, it was a way to hang out with the guys.
For Brent’s grandparents, gardening and homesteading was a way of life. The generation that first settled in Nelson and in similar communities around the Kootenays supported a more communal approach to living.
“Neighbours shared with one another and it was a lot easier because everything was small scale…it doesn’t take much land to produce everything you need.”
Brent is right; it doesn’t take much at all especially when you have a community of folks willing to help one another. In Brent’s opinion, food is meant to be shared and the labour needed to produce food should be shared as well.
“What if every household grew just one crop to share? We could all take care of one another.”
This idea of taking care of one another is what inspired Brent to live the way he lives. Oh, and perhaps that goat had something to do with it as well.
When Brent’s daughter was born twenty years ago, he found himself re-evaluating his relationship to food, and he became aware of where certain food products were coming from. Wanting to ensure that his children would have the most healthy food, Brent wanted to feed them organically but soon realized that the goat milk and cheeses he was purchasing from California weren’t really organic at all.
Brent’s concerns over misleading food regulations and certifications made him realize that he had to take more control over his food sources, and this was when Brent decided that he would need to grow and source his own foods. This was also what inspired him to buy his first milking goat.
He now lives on 33 acres of farmland two hours outside of Nelson in the small community of Johnsons Landing with his four children and about a dozen farm animals. Brent and his family are among the few year-round residents in the area, and they source about 95 percent of their food from their property.
“Food doesn’t need to be complicated, all you really need to add flavour to your food are some fresh herbs and oils” is something Brent learned from his grandmother.
“Knowing where your food comes from is important,” he says. He sees value in his hands-on approach to living. “It intertwines you with nature.”
Brent tries to work with the land, not against it. It is a system, and he teaches his children to understand the limits of the land where they live. There are rules, even in nature.
His children do enjoy a great deal of freedom on the farm, and they also understand that they need to help the farm so the farm can help them. It takes a lot of hard work to run a homestead, and when everyone comes together like the McDonald family does, it can be done.
“Deep down, we are all missing that connection to land.” he says, referring to an idea that Indigenous people have been aware of for generations. Connection to land is everything.
Three hours west of Brent lives Jenna Hopper. Jenna has spent most of her life trying to connect her heritage to living in a healthy way on the land.
Jenna Hopper grew up in Beaverlodge, a small town in Northern Alberta. She is Metis Cree, passed down through her mother, however, her blonde hair and blue eyes often make people question “just how Native she really is.”
From kindergarten until grade six, Jenna attended a primarily white school. In grade seven she moved to a more integrated school that had a fairly equal mix of white and Indigenous kids.
“I felt a lot of shame and confusion surrounding my own identity. I watched as the white kids were treated differently than the Indigenous kids and how even I was treated differently because I didn’t look Native,” she says of her experience.
As a result, Jenna really struggled in school, especially with authority, and she began acting out. But education was important to her parents.
“University was always top priority for my parents; they saved and saved so that we could get a good education.”
So when Jenna finally went off to university, she decided that if she had to go to school that she would treat it as an opportunity to learn more about where she came from.
She majored in history with a minor in Native studies, and during her four years of university took every chance she could to learn about her cultural identity by choosing topics of studies related to her Indigenous heritage.
After graduation, she got a position in the school district. She became the Aboriginal Liaison for J. Percy Page, a school in Edmonton’s Millwoods district, a district known for its bad reputation and ‘troubled’ youth.
“During my time at Percy, I felt like an imposter. I had no real lived experience of culture,” she explains.
Jenna had spent most of her life studying her family culture not participating in it. Unlike the kids she was there to help, Jenna had never experienced the cultural teachings first hand.
Again, Jenna watched as her Indigenous students were treated differently than the non-indigenous kids. The kids that Jenna worked with were facing unique challenges, their circumstances were much different from other students. For Jenna one of the hardest parts of her job was realizing just how many Indigenous youth are still carrying the traumas of previous generations. These children carry with them deep wounds, a type of pain that affects the way they experience the world.
For a lot of Indigenous youth, the world isn’t always a safe place; authority figures can’t always be trusted. Jenna watched how some of her colleagues reinforced this by the way they treated the kids she worked with.
After two years, she left her position feeling defeated by the system—she felt as though no matter how hard she tried she would never be able to affect any real change. And then she got terrible news from home.
The unexpected death of Jenna’s uncle, who passed away while visiting his kids in Winlaw, was what brought her to the Kootenays.
“My Uncle Dave and my mother were very close. They moved around a lot as kids, but they always had each other.” The death of her uncle was difficult for the entire family, yet in hindsight his death is what brought Jenna to her cousin’s homestead in Winlaw. It was a turning point for Jenna.
She had a special connection with her Uncle Dave. “He always encouraged me to follow my dreams.” After reconnecting with her family and experiencing how they lived, she made the decision to move to the Kootenays and live off of the land, which is what Dave had intended on doing himself. Jenna was able to live out that dream for him.
Today she lives in a modest home that she built herself. There are very few luxuries. She has an outhouse and uses an outdoor shower and tub. “I live very simply.”
When she first purchased her property, she brought her then boyfriend along for the adventure. When they split he told her she would never be able to live there on her own. Jenna is pleased that so far, she has been able to prove him wrong.
There are challenges, “it’s hard to make sure I get enough firewood or that my water doesn’t freeze, or that my butt doesn’t freeze on the outhouse toilet in the winter, but it’s the right kind of hard.”
After moving onto the property Jenna immersed herself in permaculture courses through VergePermaculture and through her studies began to see the intersection between Indigenous culture and permaculture.
She admits that it can be hard living on the property alone. That is why she has a vision of building a collective, a space where Indigenous people can come together and reconnect to land. Jenna sees an opportunity to learn from one another, to share resources and knowledge, to do some real healing as a community.
“We’re resilient, it’s in our blood.”
Through her ongoing experience connecting to land, Jenna has come to realize one thing: everything is connected. For Indigenous people, traditional knowledge is directly connected to land. Building a healthy relationship to nature maintains balance.
Jenna sees her gardens and the land surrounding her house as food forests. “Nature doesn’t plant itself in perfect little rows.” Nature is beautiful and it is chaos—Jenna is learning to live with its rhythms.
“I don’t consider it ‘weeding’ when I tend to my garden, I see it as harvesting because everything [in the garden] serves a purpose.”
There is a creek that runs through her property, and this was a selling feature for her. “It was important for me to find property close to water.” For Indigenous people, access to clean water is crucial to the harvesting of traditional medicines. The health of the land and water depend on each other. If the land is dirty and polluted, the nearby water will be, too.
Jenna now works as the Aboriginal Academic Support Worker in School District 8. She is excited to be working with youth again and share what she’s learned from participating in her heritage. A lot has changed for her since she worked at J. Percy Page school in Edmonton.
“I have the opportunity to share my hands-on experiences with the kids I work with, and they are eager to share that knowledge with their parents. You would be surprised how many folks are reclaiming their Indigenous heritage.”
Jenna is finally finding that lived experience she was looking for.
“Land is like my armour, she protects me and heals me so that I can warrior up the next day and do my best to be of service in a good way.”
Jenna is still finding her way back to more traditional ways of living, and it is a process. For now, she just wants to be a positive role model for others.
Brent and Jenna have never met, yet their stories are deeply connected; through land they have linked past to present, discovering more about themselves and where they came from along the way.
Whether it is connecting back to traditional values through recreating the gardens we were raised with or harvesting medicines in the forests that surround us—folks in the Kootenays have a unique opportunity to explore themselves through our mighty landscapes. This beautiful terrain holds our heritage, our ancestral knowledge, and is there for those of us who are ready to learn.