A Glimpse into the Struggle for Food Sovereignty in Canada

On October 13 and 14, 2017, The TYFPC’s Advocacy Co-Lead.  Katherine Yee, attended an Indigenous Food Sovereignty Gathering at Artscape’s Gibraltar Point, organized by FoodShare Toronto.

  Food builds community, nourishes our bodies, and allows people to express themselves. In an urban centre like Toronto, one of the most diverse in the world, you can walk through the city and find food from any cultural, ethnic or geographic tradition – whatever you’re hungry for, someone is cooking. When access to such a myriad of foods is plentiful it’s easy to forget, that many people are fighting for food sovereignty.

Food sovereignty, “the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agricultural systems,” (Via Campesina, 2018) is a vision of the past and the future, one that affects communities across the country, but none more so than Indigenous peoples.

In Canada, generations of discrimination have prevented Indigenous peoples from obtaining food sovereignty. Reserves, which are displaced communities that resulted from settlers claiming fertile land that had long been responsibly stewarded by Indigenous peoples, as well as residential schools, which stripped away traditional food knowledge and practices, while simultaneously malnourishing children, are two examples of such discrimination. The results of these histories still impact Indigenous peoples today: Indigenous communities across Canada lack access to potable water, face statistically higher rates of diabetes, and continue to struggle to access culturally appropriate foods.

As a Métis person of mixed heritage, I am so grateful that FoodShare organized the Indigenous Food Sovereignty Gathering because for a large part of my life Indigenous food was only spoken about as a kind of “novelty” – to be eaten as an “experience,” but not as a way of life. This gathering created space for Indigenous peoples to share their stories and experience of fighting for food sovereignty.

During the gathering inspiring stories were shared. Take, for instance, Arlene Jung, who told us of her community’s persistence in growing a tomato past the season in a makeshift/DIY greenhouse. Given the community’s remote location, many members had never even tasted a freshly grown tomato. Perry McLeod-Shabogesic, on the other hand, made it his mission to bring back traditional hunting after an Elder in his community couldn’t remember the last time they had tasted deer. In response, Perry opened up a wild food bank in the community, providing access to traditional foods for everyone. Many others are doing equally impactful work in bringing food, tradition, knowledge, and ceremony back into their communities’ ways of life.

However, underlying all of these triumphs was a shared sentiment that “it has been hard.”

The effects of colonialism are still felt among many Indigenous communities throughout Turtle Island. Nations have lost their land – and those displaced to remote, Northern locales will likely continue to struggle with food insecurity. In some communities, this is more acutely experienced now that climate change is preventing winter roads from freezing over. Traditional knowledge and teachings have been lost and are now held in the hands of a few rather than the many.

Because of this, it is hard to deny how political food is. Corn growers using historic seeds spend sleepless weeks hand-pollinating crops to avoid cross-pollination with neighbouring mono-crops. Hunter, a two-spirited, non-status mixed race Indigenous person has struggled for years to be included in hunting practices with male members of the Band, while the entire community struggles to gain hunting rights to their land. Chef Johl Ringuette of NishDish stresses how difficult it is to advocate for localized food systems because in our current system 80% of our food comes from outside of Canada.

Despite all the struggles and oppression, Indigenous communities have faced, many smiles and laughs were shared throughout the gathering. Joseph LeBlanc shared a hopeful anecdote: Capitalism can feel like a fast-flowing river never to be redirected, however, if everyone begins by throwing in one rock at a time to divert the stream together, we will slowly change the course of the river.

Unless we act together and support communities who have been dispossessed by colonialism and capitalism things will simply not change. Listening to the successes of people fighting for Indigenous food sovereignty, I’m hopeful that the movement is growing and that the river is changing course. Perhaps one day we will be able to look back and see how these changes have benefited communities across the country, where Indigenous peoples are again able to connect with the land, provide for themselves and their families, and be supported and celebrated for their continued practice of cultural traditions.   

By Katherine Yee

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