Skip to main content

The Origin Story of Turtle Island Coffee in Victoria, B.C.

Turtle Island Coffee Vancouver 3

Bags of Turtle Island Coffee. All images courtesy of Turtle Island Coffee.

A new Indigenous-owned coffee company based in Victoria, British Columbia, called Turtle Island Coffee has launched with the goal of exposing more people to high quality specialty coffee and Indigenous culture.

The coffee selection offered by Turtle Island will always be limited to four, with each representing a quadrant of the medicine wheel. Each features symbolism and artwork from a different Indigenous artist, with more information available through the Turtle Island website.

The company’s name references creation mythology embraced by a variety of Indigenous peoples, whereby the lands now known as North and Central America were formed on the back of a giant turtle. Turtle Island’s coffee offerings now each originate from the coffee lands of the Americas.

David Cardinal, a coffee professional of more than 20 years, is the founder and roaster behind the new brand. While bringing a wealth of knowledge and experience to the coffee side of the business, the brand’s showcase of Indigenous culture, specifically Cree tribal culture, represents an ongoing journey of self-discovery for its owner.

“Not all tribes have Turtle Island as part of their history, but a lot do. The Cree are one of them, and I didn’t know that,” Cardinal recently told Daily Coffee News. “It’s new to me and we’re just figuring it out now.”

Turtle Island Coffee Vancouver 2

Turtle Island Coffee Founder David Cardinal roasting on a vintage Sivetz machine.

Cardinal’s father was a survivor of a residential school system in British Columbia that separated children from Indigenous families by force, kept them for extended periods and prohibited any acknowledgement of their culture or language. As a result, David Cardinal also grew up without much information on the subject.

“We didn’t talk about it, and he didn’t learn a lot of his own culture either, because he was taken at the age of four and told to speak English,” Cardinal told DCN. “So we’re just kind of piecing things together now and I’m just learning as I go.”

Thus, part of the new brand’s goal is to help others who might have similarly experienced cultural loss over recent generations.

“I didn’t really know anything about Turtle Island until a couple years ago. I didn’t even know that was part of my culture,” said Cardinal. “We’re kind of rebuilding our culture.”

Cardinal, who is also currently head roaster for Victoria BC-based Esquimalt Roasting Company, was previously a mechanical engineer who monitored a computer-modeled leak-detection system for the Trans Mountain Pipeline.

“Overall, it was interesting; day to day, it was really dull, just staring at a computer screen all day,” Cardinal said. “That was not the life for me.”

Turtle Island Coffee Vancouver 1

Cardinal eventually pivoted to coffee, opening a Victoria coffee shop called Solstice Cafe, which he ran for 15 years. Prior to selling Solstice in 2016, Cardinal started roasting coffees for the cafe, renting time on a machine owned by Sooke-based Stick In The Mud. Cardinal later started roasting with Victoria, B.C.-based Level Ground Coffee Roasters before striking out on his own.

Cardinal continues to rent time on Level Ground’s classic Sivetz roaster, while packaging beans in colorful bags designed to highlight original artwork.

“I want people to walk down the coffee aisle and from 50 feet away, point and say, ‘What is that? That’s what I want,'” said Cardinal. “It really comes down to getting people to try the coffee and see if that’s what they’re looking for.”

[Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Turtle Island Coffee as based in Vancouver. The company is based in Victoria, B.C.]

Questions? Comments? News to share? Contact DCN’s editors here