by Deron Johnston
This year’s Eastern Ontario Local Food Conference [EOLFC] was held this past weekend at the University of Ottawa. The Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs [OMAFRA] is the organizing body behind EOLFC. For this year’s conference, OMAFRA combined forces with Sustain Ontario, an incorporated non-profit organization created to become “the unifying voice for food and farming interests across the province”, to host an even larger four-day event named “Bring Food Home – Upstream Collaboration”.
On the second day of the conference, (the first day consisted of local food tours around Eastern Ontario), there was a panel discussion on “De-colonizing Land and Food: What That Looks Like In Ontario”. The focus of the discussion was to explore the relationship and interconnectedness of land and food from an indigenous food sovereignty perspective. The panel was made up of five indigenous people from various First Nations in Ontario who shared stories of the challenges they face in their respective communities.
Food appears to be a very complicated matter for indigenous peoples. When settlers from other areas of the world started arriving in Ontario, they brought their food traditions, food methods and ingredients with them. Four ingredients that the settlers brought to Ontario that one member of the panel referred as “poison” were: sugar, salt, lard, and wheat. None of these four ingredients were part of the diet of the indigenous people of Ontario. Over the last two centuries, these ingredients began to work their way into the food system of First Nations. Not only for indigenous peoples, these ingredients have come to create health concerns for all Canadians.
Many of the traditional food habitats for indigenous peoples have been disturbed by settlers, to the point where they no longer provide the food sources that were relied upon in the past. Consider that Rice Lake was so named because the lake was an important habitat for wild rice, which was an important part of the local indigenous diet, according to indigenous panellist Larry McDermott. Today, one member of the panel observed, they can no longer find any wild rice growing around the lake.
Modern agricultural practices, expansion of residential and commercial activities, and even current regulations around food handling and preparation, can have negative impacts on indigenous food systems. The attendees heard a story from Perry McLeod-Shabogesic about how, in order to continue to use some of the food traditions in his community, at times they’ve taken a “don’t ask permission, go ahead and do it” approach with food. He said that, by asking permission of government agencies or organizations to do something, you have given away your power. He stated that, before doing any new food-related activity, his community does their research into the safety of the activity and possible health outcomes. They then decide whether to go forward. If they do, Perry noted that, after they’ve been performing the activity for a while “under the radar”, they’ll be approached about it and, quite often left, to continue. Occasionally, they’ll even be asked to demonstrate what they’re doing, so that others can learn.
The goal of the discussion was to inform attendees about the challenges faced by indigenous peoples surrounding their food system through stories and knowledge-sharing. Rather than an atmosphere of blame, or scapegoating of settlers, this discussion was intended to move forward and seek new allies to help reconcile the Ontario food system in a just and meaningful way.