The soup was great, but the community values were outstanding.
We knew we’d have to stop in as soon as we discovered there was a place in Masset describing itself as an organic vegetarian cafe – more or less the diet we’ve adopted in recent months. Green Gaia did not disappoint: the bright, funky mural on the building’s exterior gives way to a cozy interior that does double duty, with a cafe and organic grocery store along the left and a vintage consignment shop along the right. Some tables for diners separate the two sides, sort of – it really feels like sitting in the living room of an open-concept house, the owner of which has a slightly manic tendency to proudly display a robust collection of vintage clothing.
Green Gaia (not Green Gwaiia, as I kept wanting to call it) caters to the lunch crowd. The menu is short and sweet: a soup of the day, a few savoury crepes, nachos, desserts and a dragon bowl (veggies and rice with miso gravy). The latter was sadly unavailable the couple times we visited as the owner was out of town. During her absence, Green Gaia was tended by Harvest Cole: farmer, former circus performer, and maker of very good soup.
“I grew up travelling across the country,” Harvest says, sitting across the table from me after I had finished devouring a bowl of her excellent borscht. “My parents were circus performers, so I grew up travelling and performing my entire life.”
Harvest visited Haida Gwaii when she was 17 and never left. “I just hit North Beach and something felt really right and I’ve just always lived there,” she says. “I decided to put roots down; that’s what it’s all about now – root cellars and root vegetables.” She’s being very literal, too: she and her husband run Sangan River Farm just east of Masset on Tow Hill Road.
Over the years she’s lived on the island, Harvest has noticed a shift in the food culture there. “People’s values are changing: people here have always traditionally valued local food,” she says. “That’s what it’s always been about here. So then I think when the military came, a lot of this pre-made, off-island food – that just became the norm. That was a big change for culture here, and now we’re swinging back towards incorporating not only locally harvested food, but locally grown food and the importance of organic.”
“We don’t have too many healthcare resources on island, so all that preventative stuff you can do is where it’s at – taking better care of ourselves and wanting that,” she continues.
Both Green Gaia and Harvest’s farm have played active roles in reshaping Masset’s food values. Green Gaia’s owner, Barb Sly, used to do an organic Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) food box delivery, which transformed into the current physical store and restaurant. Barb will order anything by request – Harvest places a big bulk order once a year for her own family. Harvest’s farm, meanwhile, participates in Haida Gwaii’s Farm to School program, a community food effort that has set some national precedents.
“It’s this initiative to bring local food, process it, and make it available to people in schools, for the hot lunch program, at the hospitals, to feed the patients, local organizations – the food bank,” Harvest explains. “So my daughter goes to school; she gets deer meat at school and wild fish and all of that. So there is more access to [local food]; maybe not through restaurants, but more community access.”
They were the first in Canada to obtain permission to use wild meat and seafood, Harvest notes. (I wasn’t able to find any sources to verify that, but I believe them given how heavily regulated meat usually is.) The program has also been cited as means for citizens, especially children, to reconnect with indigenous culture.
Easy and affordable community access to healthy local food is (or should be) the cornerstone of every community across Canada. It’s very encouraging to see such initiatives cropping up in remote communities – who are often marginalized and the victims of ongoing food crises. But these are also things all communities should be doing. Edmonton is rich with food, yet so many of our residents go hungry every day. It’s not enough to simply wave the generic banner of local food by pointing at the number of our farmers’ markets and telling people to do it themselves: widespread social change will only happen through incremental steps that focus on education, access and programs that actually get food into people’s mouths. (I don’t mean to bash Edmonton on this issue – we’ve taken great strides, for sure. But we can also keep doing so much better.)
It often starts with the work of a few individuals and smaller groups. Haida Gwaii’s Farm to School program and Green Gaia’s organic grocery offering proves that in spades.
“On behalf of Barb, her value and motto is really just living that lifestyle,” Harvest says. “She’s here as this beacon of encouraging people to take better care of themselves and help provide these options for people to have the alternative. She’s really committed to organics and living that way and the ripples that that causes.”
Check back soon for a conversation with Susan Musgrave: poet, cookbook author and Copper Beech House owner.