Indigenous Food Sovereignty Gathering

Presented through Foodshare’s Indigenous Food Access Program at Artscape Gibraltar Point - October 13th & 14th, 2018

Community leaders from all over Ontario gathered on the Southern shores of the Tkaronto Islands to join in ceremony and circle for the purpose of sharing stories and creating an opportunity to connect and collaborate within the local movement for Indigenous Food Sovereignty. On the morning of Saturday, October 13th a group of appointed fire keepers came across the water from the city before dawn to begin the weekends’ event with a Sunrise ceremony. A sacred fire was ignited as a doorway for the spirits and offerings of Sema (Tobacco) were made to the Fire as stories and songs were shared. As guests arrived and enjoyed delicious cornbread, a warm and welcoming energy filled the old school facilities at Artscape Gibraltar Point. Elder Pauline Shirt commenced in an opening ceremony to address the spirits in her Plains Cree dialect as the room and everyone inside was smudged with Sage. Foodshare’s Indigenous food access manager, Carolynne Crawley, proceeded to welcome us and introduce the first keynote speaker.

Dr. Joseph LeBlanc spoke about his concept of decolonizing the dinner table and the need for the revitalization of traditional local economies. He spoke about the contentious nature of the term sovereignty in Indigenous communities, as well as how leverage this word provides leverage can provide through the crown’s understandings which can empower self governance of Indigenous food systems. Joseph shared his research which exposes the reality of the capitalist economics taking place through subsidy exploitation by the Northern store who consistently attempts to project an outward appearance of martyrdom in their food distribution business. Dr. LeBlanc touched on the reality of working with grant funding that is based in colonial frameworks and worldview which currently are not adequately relating culture to health. Joseph’s strategy to overcome these impediments is typically to begin projects to generate results in advance and then prove to funders the efficacy of a program in order to later receive funds, as has been the case with wild food bank project in Nipissing.

Next we heard from Cody Leeson and Courtney Kurek of Noojmowin Teg Health Centre on Manitoulin Island. Courtney and Cody have been collaborating to coordinate the newly developed Indigenous Food Sovereignty initiative titled – Mshiikenh Mnis Wenjiing (Turtle Island Roots) Program. The offerings of foraging, gardening and cooking programs, baby-food preparation, fishing and fish smoking equipment and infrastructure all work together to provide access to Indigenous food systems and practices. Language and ceremony are incorporated in the programming whenever possible as knowledge is shared and disseminated between children and elders from different communities across the island.

After a wonderful lunch provided by NishDish, the man behind the meal spoke to us about his life and his work. On top of running his restaurant and catering business, Chef Johl Whiteduck Ringuette also sits as President of the board for two Indigenous organizations: the Toronto Indigenous Business Association, and the nonprofit Ojibiikaan Indigenous Cultural Network. Johl spoke about his experience working in the courts painfully witnessing first hand the forces of systemic racism that result in the incarceration of anyone identifiably Indigenous through issuance of vagrancy fines. He spoke about traditional food sources, culinary practices and his mission to make these foods accessible even in an urban context while providing jobs for the urban Indigenous community.

Next we heard from James Pinesii Whetung about his experience in the revitalization of ricing practices in his community. After growing up on a small reserve with not much food James became passionate about cultivating Manoomin (wild rice). When faced with conflict from cottagers protesting his ricing renaissance for the sake of their motorboats and watersports, James was able prove his resilience through successful resistance with the help of strong advocacy and allyship from some local community and Universities. The endeavour of replanting rice has shown to provide habitat restoration for a multitude of insects and animals revealing the nature of Manoomin as an important source of sustenance for more than just humans in our environment.

At this point Pauline Shirt led us in a Water ceremony where she shared teachings of our  intimate relationship to water. She taught us to share our stories with the water as this is healing for the water as well as for ourselves. We were encouraged to contemplate our relationship with water allowing us to come to a very reflective and contemplative space.

When Chandra Maracle stood to address the room she began with the Haudenosaunee practice of reciting the words that are spoken before the matter at hand. She explained that through this process the personal challenges which anyone might be facing in the room that might prevent them from being fully present are acknowledged and accepted. Chandra told us about her experiences as a mother and community member at Six Nations. She spoke about the importance of eating as a family and sharing traditional ceremony and songs pertaining to food. Chandra is passionate about the importance of the diverse roles people can occupy in our food systems, from producing, to preparing, to consuming, to distributing, every aspect is important.

Joseph Pitawanakwat brilliantly entertained the room with stories of how teachings were passed on to him from his Grandmother who has carried on traditions of Anishinaabe medicine for her family. Joseph discussed the resistance to application of traditional plant medicines in healthcare institutions due to lack of understanding of the associated biochemical processes and their potential interaction with other treatments being undergone. Joseph has taken on the task of deeply understanding plants and their medicinal values to help spread this awareness and promote their widespread use. Joseph is a proponent of the idea that everyone should be able to make their own medicines, which is why he travels tirelessly to teach people how to do just that. He also teaches about how to enter into right relationships with these plants to ensure they are being stewarded and not exploited. Day one of the gathering then concluded with an exquisite dinner from Hiawatha Catering.

On the second morning of the gathering, after another sunrise ceremony led by Perry McLeod and an opening ceremony from Pauline Shirt, Perry discussed his work providing educational hunting programs in his community. He spoke about the role of women as life givers and men as receivers. He spoke about the process of receiving an animal during a hunt, and how he believes a piece of the hunter is sacrificed in this process.

Hunter Casganette and Ieiérhes Flynt of the Sacred Seeds Collective then spoke about their experience as Two Spirit people. Hunter described the challenges he has faced as a transgender man whose family struggled to understand and accept their gender identity which complicated their opportunity to inherit family trapping knowledge. They spoke to the historical and contemporary importance of having Two Spirit people in communities, and in particular to have them working with medicines.

Next we heard from Jay Monture who travelled all the way from Moose Factory. Jay spoke to us about the food insecurity experienced in his community and the pop-up farmers markets and all-season greenhouse project being have been established to address these issues.

After a nourishing lunch prepared by Pow Wow Cafe, Nikki Auten spoke about her studies at Trent and her experience as the project manager for the Flint Corn Community Project where she is working to revitalize corn seed that has been frozen more than twenty years back to a viable state. She spoke about the astounding impact of the introduction of song and ceremony upon the germination rates of ancestral corn varieties and also touched on the artistic aspects of seed saving.

Finally we heard from Arlene Jung who spoke about her experience trying to provide healthy food for her family in her remote community of Wawakapewin. She spoke about the effects of climate change on traditional food systems and her innovative strategies to remediate soil with peat moss and to extend growing seasons with greenhouses as well as improve food security through preservation and canning. Some time for decompression and networking was enjoyed before a final meal and closing ceremony as the sacred fire smouldered out with the daylight and guests returned to the city across the water with heads and hearts brimming full.

By Max Corne-Klein