| Building Indigenous food sovereignty

Fighting to reclaim traditional practices in a changing world

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 really 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.”

“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.

“Whatever is produced from this garden goes back to the people. And […] it was completely unanimous: the whole community said, ‘Yeah, go for it.’”

“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.”

“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?”


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