When lo­cal food is wild rice

The Woolwich Observer - - VENTURE - FIELD NOTES

LO­CAL FOOD COMES IN all shapes, sizes ... and va­ri­eties.

For In­dige­nous peo­ple in north­ern On­tario, one lo­cal food is wild rice.

Tra­di­tion­ally, it’s grown well along the Win­nipeg River.

But now, de­vel­op­ment, al­tered wa­ter level pat­terns and cli­mate change have cre­ated a food desert along a part of the river, and it’s ham­per­ing wild rice pro­duc­tion by In­dige­nous har­vesters there.

Re­searchers from en­gi­neer­ing and arts at the Univer­sity of Guelph have teamed up to help bet­ter un­der­stand the prob­lem and try to come up with a so­lu­tion.

Profs. An­drea Brad­ford, School of En­gi­neer­ing, and Brit­tany Luby, Col­lege of Arts, along with grad­u­ate stu­dent Sam Mehltret­ter and un­der­grad­u­ate stu­dent Emma Stel­ter are work­ing with Ochi­ichagwe’Babigo’In­ing Ojib­way Na­tion (OON) in north­west­ern On­tario, just north of Kenora, where the Win­nipeg River flows from Lake of the Woods to­ward Hud­son Bay. The re­gion is home to Luby’s pa­ter­nal

an­ces­tors.

OON is look­ing to Brad­ford and Luby to an­a­lyze flow data, con­duct and tran­scribe Elder in­ter­views about the his­tor­i­cal avail­abil­ity of tra­di­tional foods, and de­ter­mine whether in­dige­nous food­stuffs can be re­vi­tal­ized in the district.

“Through this part­ner­ship, we hope to mit­i­gate the neg­a­tive im­pacts of con­tem­po­rary wa­ter man­age­ment and co-de­velop a plan to re­vi­tal­ize In­dige­nous crops,” says Luby. “On­tario and In­dige­nous na­tions need to find a new way to bat­tle food in­se­cu­rity in the in­dus­tri­al­ized drainage basin.”

Luby, a his­to­rian, has worked with OON since 2007, an­a­lyz­ing the so­cio­cul­tural ef­fects of White­dog Falls Gen­er­at­ing Sta­tion on Anishi­naabe fam­i­lies. Brad­ford spe­cial­izes in the eco­hy­drol­ogy of streams and wet­lands, and mit­i­gat­ing the ef­fects of de­vel­op­ment on these sys­tems. She has pro­vided ex­pert tes­ti­mony on the im­pacts of de­vel­op­ment on wa­ter re­sources at On­tario Mu­nic­i­pal Board and En­vi­ron­men­tal Joint Tri­bunal hear­ings.

Now, the re­searchers have part­nered with OON’s Econoamic De­vel­op­ment Com­mit­tee, which cre­ates growth op­por­tu­ni­ties on re­serve.

Here’s the back­ground. In the late 19th and early 20th cen­turies, mem­bers of OON thrived along the Win­nipeg River. With its thou­sands of miles of ir­reg­u­lar shore­line, it pro­vides ideal spawn­ing ground for fish. Lean pro­tein was com­ple­mented by com­plex car­bo­hy­drates – specif­i­cally wild rice, known by na­tion mem­bers as manomin, Ojibwe for spirit berry.

It grows well in the re­gion. At the height of pro­duc­tion, about 500,000 lbs. of manomin was har­vested. But through the 1950s, hy­dro­elec­tric de­vel­op­ment, mill ex­pan­sion and raw sewage pour­ing di­rectly into the river com­pro­mised com­mu­nity health. Food fish pop­u­la­tions like stur­geon de­clined.

By the late 1970s, pol­lu­tion and food scarcity led to the al­most com­plete aban­don­ment of OON. While the Anishi­naabe have re­oc­cu­pied OON, tra­di­tional foods re­main scarce, up­set­ting the ecosys­tem. “You got all sorts of bugs … that feed off the wild rice. The birds come in and they eat the in­sects. So, it’s a chain re­ac­tion,” says OON Elder Clarence Henry. Adds Elder Archie Wagamese: “Even now – all our beavers are dy­ing. Muskrats. Ducks.”

Band mem­bers as­so­ciate the con­struc­tion of the Nor­man Dam (circa 1900) and White­dog Falls Gen­er­at­ing Sta­tion (circa 1955) with food in­se­cu­rity on re­serve. They be­lieve wa­ter reg­u­la­tion pre­vents OON from har­vest­ing manomin, which is ex­tremely sen­si­tive to fluc­tu­at­ing wa­ter lev­els, and from run­ning a food fish­ery.“Wild rice har­vest­ing is a treaty right,” says Elder Terry Greene, not­ing Clause 11 of the Pay­pom Treaty reads “The In­di­ans will be free as by the past for their … rice har­vest.”

Ear­lier this year, Luby and Mehltret­ter vis­ited OON to dis­cuss pre­lim­i­nary re­search find­ings with com­mu­nity mem­bers. While on site, they par­tic­i­pated in tra­di­tional manomin pro­cess­ing. They re­turned to Guelph with wild rice to process with stu­dents.

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