Food is Medicine: Canning and preserving of traditional foods



​Brenda Pike, whose ancestral name is Cha'kee'ka, is a mother and Wellness Champion from Skwah First Nation near Chilliwack, BC.

Brenda is an official Canning Champion, having completed the First Nations Health Authority's (FNHA) Canning Train-the-Trainer sessions. She and other Canning Champions across BC give back to their communities by facilitating canning and other food-preservation workshops, as well as other food-related programs. Canning is a way to preserve food – ranging from fruit and vegetables to fish and wild meat – by heating it and sealing it in an airtight container.

Making memories, jams and pies 

Like many other First Nations people, Brenda has warm memories of canning with her mother and grandmother. She now enjoys teaching her knowledge to her daughters and others.

“I was very young when I first started helping," recalls Brenda. “My main job was to stir the pot.  My mother and I would mash the berries, then she would measure out the ingredients, I'd stir them together, then we'd fill the jars.  My grandmother was a baker too, so there was always fresh bread, in-season jam, and delicious homemade pies." 

Brenda says she didn't learn all the steps for canning and baking until later on, when she became a mom and really wanted to learn how to can foods and bake pies from beginning to end. Her mother and grandmother had both passed away by then, but she was fortunate to have a few cousins with that knowledge.

“One cousin taught me how to make pies and bread, and I found recipes that were similar to how my mother and grandmother used to make jams. I especially wanted to learn how to make homemade jam – I went through a phase of buying store-bought, but there's so much more love in making the jams ourselves. And it's locally harvested, picked and preserved – it's important to support our local farmers!"


​Continually learning and teaching new skills

After Brenda had mastered the art of making blackberry, raspberry and strawberry jams – the same ones she had made with her mother and grandmother – she decided to learn how to can fish.

“We are Sto:lo people, 'People of the River'; salmon is our food and our lifeline, salmon takes care of us. So I asked my auntie to teach me. I got to filet and fill the jars; she provided me that opportunity to learn and get more comfortable with it."

Still later, Brenda found a mentor who taught her how to use a pressure canner, something many people are intimidated by or afraid to use.

“She wanted to pass o​n her canner to someone, so she taught me and I took those teachings. Every year since, I've been filling my jars with salmon and have become more comfortable with the pressure canners."

Since then, Bren​da has co-led group sessions and helped teach other people how to use big and small pressure canners filled with  salmon or wild meat.

She says she has learned a lot from the FNHA's Train-the-Trainer Canning Sessions, where she ​was able to network with other First Nations canners from across BC and to learn even more about canning.

“I've excelled even more since that experience. With much curiosity, I explore recipes; I can turkey, deer bone broth and cranberries for the turkey dinners.  I am fortunate that my husband is a hunter and fisherman, as this provides me many opportunities to can a variety of wild meats (elk, deer and moose) as well as salmon. I'm also learning how to can vegetables with the pressure canner. I'm usually a quiet person, but I've stepped out of my comf​ort zone and taken on a leadership and knowledge keeper role during these sessions. I enjoy supporting other community members on this journey!"

Using food and other medicines to heal and nourish our bodies and spirits​

“The FNHA's annual Canning Champions gathering is something I really look forward to each year. Food is definitely medicine. It takes care of us. It nourishes my physical being, while practising our traditional ways of being and knowing takes care of my spiritual being.

“A long time ago, we didn't have this type of food preservation; our people dried or smoked our meat, and had to plan seasonally in order to have food for winter. Today, with the modern world, we have tools to be able to can. Canning is one of our ways now; it's a more recent tradition, but is still part of our ways of being. I've canned with my mother and grandmother, and now, I can with my daughters. I talk to them about the importance of this work and ho​w this is something I used to do with my mother and grandmother. I'm going to continuously be here to teach them about safe canning and safe preserving so they can pass that down to their children one day. ​

“I also have knowledge of traditional medicines, and I take my daughters out to harvest the plants we use for salves and tea blending. I don't like to use store-bought medicines; sometimes you're just achy and have a sore throat, and there are traditional medicines that can support with that. I've created a cold and flu tea to support my immune system. During cold and flu season, I often make tea for my relatives or with other community members to help with their cold and flu symptoms.  

“My daughter is only 13, but her project right now in school is focusing on tea blending for their 'genius hour'; each week she plays around with the ingredients and different medicines. She bl​ends her teas, and write down her analysis after trying them. It makes me proud she is picking up these tools and sharing them."


Adding gardening to canning

Brenda and her family started a small patio garden one summer that they've now expanded to garden beds.

“We grow our own potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, hot peppers, cucumbers, zucchini and kale. I often share my garden goods with my neighbours, coworkers and friends. It's been a real trial and error; some things you can't overwater or water at certain times of day, but we're learning. Each year we add another vegetable and we're really comfortable now. We used to buy seedlings, but now we start seedlings ourselves." 

She says gardening was very helpful during COVID-19 for her family's wholistic health and wellness as it kept them connected.

“Gardening is a family event, the kids will come help me pull weeds, plant the seedlings, water and harvest vegetables.  All while getting some vitamin D, physical movement, and connecting to Mother Earth." 

In addition to the connection, satisfaction and nutrition provided by gardening and canning, Brenda notes that her family is able to spend less at the grocery store!

Are you interested in learning more about the joys of canning? Check out our guide here!

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