Feed­ing Na­tions

Fight­ing to re­claim tra­di­tional prac­tices in a chang­ing world

The McGill Daily - - Front Page - Nora Mc­cready The Mcgill Daily

On Tues­day, Septem­ber 26, the Con­cor­dia Food Coali­tion hosted a panel dis­cus­sion on In­dige­nous food se­cu­rity and sovereignty. The event was part of a week-long event se­ries called Bite Me, cen­ter­ing around is­sues of food se­cu­rity, ur­ban agri­cul­ture, and sus­tain­abil­ity. The pan­elists in­cluded Nahka Ber­trand, Kan­er­ahtiio Hem­lock, and Wayne Robin­son. The dis­cus­sion was mod­er­ated by Brooke Deere.

Nahka Ber­trand is a grad­u­ate of Con­cor­dia Jour­nal­ism School. She is a mem­ber of Acho Dene Koe, of the Dene Na­tion in the North­west Ter­ri­to­ries. She lived in the North­west Ter­ri­to­ries un­til she was five be­fore mov­ing to Que­bec, and now runs a cater­ing com­pany with her sis­ters. Called the Three Sis­ters, the name is both a play on the fa­mil­ial re­la­tion­ship of the founders, and a ref­er­ence to a tra­di­tional In­dige­nous farm­ing prac­tice in­volv­ing the “three sis­ters”: squash, corn, and beans. To­gether, they are work­ing on pub­lish­ing a cook­book of healthy recipes in­spired by In­dige­nous food prac­tices.

Kan­er­ahtiio Hem­lock is an adult ed­u­ca­tion teacher in Kah­nawake. He is a Kah­nawake na­tive and is in­ter­ested in In­dige­nous food sus­tain­abil­ity and sovereignty. Along with his stu­dents, Hem­lock planted a gar­den in Kah­nawake, which has served the com­mu­nity for three sea­sons.

Wayne Robin­son iden­ti­fies as an “ur­ban In­dige­nous” per­son and is a so­cial worker for Na­tive Mon­treal. Robin­son is also the pres­i­dent of the First Peo­ples Jus­tice Cen­tre, a re­source that he helped bring to the com­mu­nity in 2016.

In­dige­nous food sovereignty

Ber­trand dis­cussed how healthy the tra­di­tional Dene diet was. Ac­cess to this diet has been com­pro­mised by en­vi­ron­men­tal de­struc­tion.

“Tra­di­tion­ally, the Dene, [...] the an­ces­tors, the old peo­ple, used to live a re­ally long time and they just lived off a diet of moose meat, fish, some berries and that’s it. It was re- ally healthy for them and it was re­ally adapted to their life­style. [...] But today be­cause of ur­ban­iza­tion, be­cause of prox­im­ity to ur­ban ar­eas and also be­cause of pol­lu­tion to the land […] there are sto­ries of moose who have a lot of cancer and so they’re not re­ally ed­i­ble and healthy, and same with the fish too, as well as the wa­ter. […] How do we fix this is­sue? [...] Well, com­mu­nity ini­tia­tives, and lit­tle projects.”

Robin­son stressed that at­tain­ing In­dige­nous food sovereignty will be a tremen­dous up­hill bat­tle. The knowl­edge base is small, and many In­dige­nous peo­ple don’t un­der­stand the his­tor­i­cal con­text of the foods that they be­lieve be­long to their cul­ture. He il­lus­trated this through the story of ban­nock.

“It’s a pretty sim­ple bread that we made and it’s one of the most pan-na­tive Amer­i­can things ever,” Robin­son ex­plained. “How did this one thing be­come so iden­ti­fy­ing for In­dige­nous peo­ples? [...] There were a lot of com­mu­ni­ties like my com­mu­nity where we were taken off our tra­di­tional hunt­ing or farm­ing grounds. [...] You were given flour as a ra­tion, you were given salt, you were given some lard, and when you put the flour and salt to­gether with a bit of wa­ter and throw it in the lard, you could eas­ily make a very rudi­men­tary ban­nock. [...] This thing is more a sym­bol of [the] geno­cide that was com­mit­ted upon us.”

The pan­elists agreed that In­dige­nous food sovereignty is im­por­tant be­cause food is a uni­ver­sally rec­og­nized ex­pres­sion of her­itage. The lack of a widely-known In­dige­nous food cul­ture is harm­ful and iso­lat­ing.

“Pri­mar­ily, today, it’s about tak­ing back our in­de­pen­dence. To pro­duce our own food, I think it’s em­pow­er­ing,” said Hem­lock.

Kah­nawake Com­mu­nity Gar­den

Hem­lock spoke at length about the found­ing and growth of a com­mu­nity gar­den in Kah­nawake. The gar­den was planted on land along High­way 30 that had been des­ig­nated for “eco­nomic growth.” Ini­tial sug­ges­tions for us­age in­cluded build­ing a casino or a gas sta­tion. The gar­den, how­ever, was uni­ver­sally em­braced by the com­mu­nity as a more sus­tain­able means of eco­nomic growth.

“This isn’t a per­sonal busi­ness, it’s to demon­strate to the com­mu­nity an al­ter­na­tive eco­nomic model than what’s be­ing fed to us,” said Hem­lock. “What­ever is pro­duced from this gar­den goes back to the peo­ple. And [...] it was com­pletely unan­i­mous: the whole com­mu­nity said, ‘Yeah, go for it.’”

When the time came for plant­ing, about 40 com­mu­nity mem­bers showed up to help. Hem­lock said he ini­tially ex­pected the plant­ing to take all week­end, but the vol­un­teers fin­ished within three hours. The mas­sive com­mu­nity turnout was in­dica­tive of over­whelm­ing sup­port for this ini­tia­tive to im­prove In­dige­nous food sovereignty.

“Ev­ery­body com­mented on the feel­ing that they felt out there,” con­tin­ued Hem­lock. “It was a good feel­ing be­cause it was ran­dom peo­ple from the com­mu­nity that came out. Some of us knew each other, but it was a lot of peo­ple that we didn’t know.”

That was three plant­ing sea­sons ago. Since then, they have given food to the lo­cal hos­pi­tal, the el­ders lodge, and the in­de­pen­dent liv­ing cen­ter, and ev­ery school in Kah­nawake has come so that the chil­dren can pick their own corn.

Look­ing to the fu­ture, Hem­lock wants to ex­plore the pos­si­bil­ity of in­ter-na­tion trade. An el­der from a na­tion in north­ern On­tario re­cently con­tacted Hem­lock hop­ing to pur­chase food grown in the gar­den.

“He said they feel like they’re be­ing taken ad­van­tage of from the trade store where they get their food, and they’re look­ing for other sources to get food,” ex­plained Hem­lock. “So I men­tioned, well, we’re start­ing this gar­den. He said, as much as you can pro­duce, send it up and we’ll buy it off of you.”

While this is not cur­rently fea­si­ble for Hem­lock and the Kah­nawake com­mu­nity, there is room for growth.

“We can open those old trade net­works that we had with all dif­fer­ent na­tions,” Hem­lock told the au­di­ence. “We have corn, beans and squash. There’s places that have fish, in New Bruns­wick they have elk. Dif­fer­ent com­mu­ni­ties, dif­fer­ent things. We can feed our­selves and we can trade with other na­tions.”

In­dige­nous food sovereignty

Robin­son voiced sup­port for the move­ment to­wards In­dige­nous food sovereignty while en­cour­ag­ing oth­ers to rec­og­nize the in­her­ent priv­i­lege that, in his eyes, ac­com­pa­nied the dis­cus­sion at hand.

“There’s a push [...] to go back to a way of sus­tain­ing our­selves that might re­claim some of our sovereignty,” he said, “but I think we have to rec­og­nize there’s also a lot of priv­i­lege there. I think a lot of In­dige­nous fam­i­lies [...] are deal­ing with a lot of chal­lenges; a lot of bar­ri­ers. [...] And then say­ing ‘Ok, on top of this, you’re also go­ing to go and some­how col­lect coun­try food, [...] you’re also go­ing to serve food that’s nu­tri­tious,’ but we know there’s a rea­son why the su­per­mar­kets and the fast food chains are so pop­u­lar be­cause in our ur­ban­ized en­vi­ron­ment, I mean, it’s just eas­ier.”

Robin­son went on to em­pha­size that there is not just one way of em­brac­ing one’s In­dige­nous her­itage.

“I think there’s some sort of bal­ance there, you know, re­spect­ing tra­di­tional tech­niques and tools, but also un­der­stand­ing that we live in a dif­fer­ent so­ci­ety, and there’s a place in here for be­ing In­dige­nous that doesn’t mean that I have to com­pletely live off the land, doesn’t mean I have to be liv­ing in north­ern On­tario, doesn’t mean that I have to fall un­der th­ese ro­man­ti­cized stereo­types of what an In­dige­nous per­son might be. There is a way to be In­dige­nous in the city.”

Sim­i­larly, Robin­son stressed that in the fight for en­vi­ron­men­tal jus­tice, In­dige­nous peo­ples must not bear the bur­den of the dam­age that has been done by set­tlers.

“There’s the whole stoic In­dige­nous me­dia rep­re­sen­ta­tion, where all na­tive peo­ple are like mys­ti­cal be­ings that live in the for­est. That’s a lot to put on peo­ple who have had a very hard his­tory. Grow­ing up, I prob­a­bly wasn’t the biggest en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist, I don’t think ev­ery In­dige­nous per­son has to be. [...] Peo­ple that rec­og­nize the priv­i­lege in be­ing a set­tler, what are you do­ing?”

“The an­ces­tors, the old peo­ple used to live a re­ally long time and they just lived off a diet of moose meat, fish, some berries, and that’s it. It was re­ally healthy for them and it was re­ally adapted to their life­style.” –Nahka Ber­trand

“There’s a push [...] to go back to a way of sus­tain­ing our­selves that might re­claim some of our sovereignty, but I think we have to rec­og­nize there’s also a lot of priv­i­lege there.” –Wayne Robin­son

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