Sanya Oberoi / Sputnik Photography
With the emergence of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, there has been a renewed effort to mend the relationship and harm committed against Indigenous people on Turtle Island. Food is often left out of the discourse of reconciliation, but that overlooks just how intricate of a role food plays in Indigenous communities.
The first settlers of Turtle Island looked at the richness of the land as something meant to be taken. Indigenous communities were deemed “lazy” for their “lack of industry” on reaping the land. What they failed to appreciate was how those same practices for harvesting contributed to the thriving landscape of Turtle Island. Over the following centuries, Turtle Island has become commodified by neo-liberal policies which placed the authority over the food system in the hands of large corporations and transnational organizations whose only interests were profit margins.
Indigenous people across Canada experience more than double the rates of food insecurity than their non-Indigenous counterparts. Food insecurity has a long history rooted in settler colonialism and socio-economic marginalization. Through the forced confinement of Indigenous people onto reserves, many tribes were isolated from their traditional lands and food sources. The 1800s, the Canadian government sanctioned the slaughter of buffalo, hunting regulations that violated treaties, the issuing of fishing licenses and the elimination of agricultural production on reserves were all ways in which food insecurity was exacerbated. In residential schools, Indigenous children were starved and punished using food. A negative relationship with food was created and traditional foods were banned in schools. Food was used as a tool to sever ties with community and culture.
Indigenous people’s relationship with food and more importantly the land, are a fundamental piece of Indigenous culture. Food is more than sustenance, but an intentional reciprocal relationship built on responsibilities and natural law. Through hunting, fishing, growing, and gathering, Indigenous people practice what Potawatomi professor Robin Kimmerer describes in her book Braiding Sweetgrass, as the ‘Honorable Harvest’. The Honorable Harvest “are rules of sorts that govern our taking, shape our relationships with the natural world, and rein in our tendency to consume—that the world might be as rich for the seventh generation as it is for our own.”
The laws of Honorable Harvest are caring for who takes care of you, never taking more than what you need or what is given to you, leaving some for others, minimizing all harm, always sharing what you have and being grateful by honoring the life you have taken. Moreover, this relationship is essential for the transmission of culture and traditional responsibilities to future generations. As University of Victoria Professor Jeff Corntassel writes in his journal article Toward Sustainable Self-Determination, “Without the ability of community members to continuously renew their relationships with the natural world, the indigenous languages, traditional teachings, family structures, and livelihoods of that community are all jeopardized.”
Canada lacks adequate policy towards food and land that has a reconciliatory nature towards Indigenous food sovereignty. Indigenous food sovereignty is unique in that the framework for policy should support not only Indigenous people’s access to food systems but also facilitate their sacred responsibilities to their ancestral lands, culture, and spirituality for future generations. Canada’s policies should borrow principles of Indigenous ecological knowledge and practices to transform the food system on Turtle Island into one that is more just, sustainable, and equitable for all. While national policy is just the start, a true commitment to reconciliation would require a change of values as a society. Food should be looked at as a tool to undo the harm of the past while progressing as united nations on Turtle Island.
This article was originally published in print Volume 23, Issue 2 on Thursday, Oct. 5.