Indigenous food sovereignty – a way of life

Eliza Peters (left) and Tonya Smith are planting seasonal veggies and fruits in a pilot project of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). | Photo courtesy of Tonya Smith

What is Canada’s food policy and how does it represent Indigenous people? Food sovereignty in Canada has gained public interest as Indigenous groups reinforce their land rights and title.

Indigenous food sovereignty has become an important and distinct category in Canadian food sovereignty,” says Tonya Smith, a research graduate at the University of British Columbia who is exploring how forestry and land management interact with Indigenous food security and sovereignty.

Sharing traditional food practices

Smith is also working with Eliza Peters from the Líl̓wat Nation to assess new ways to encourage food security for Lil̓wat7úl, which coincidentally translates to people of the land.

The Líl̓wat Nation territories overlaps the Squamish Nation territories and includes Whistler, extending north through Pemberton to Mount Currie.

Smith believes that Indigenous food sovereignty relates to rights and ownership of territories. “…If you start talking about food it inevitably relates to rights. They go hand in hand,” says Smith.

Both Smith and Peters’ research involves increasing awareness of traditional foods within the Líl̓wat Nation. They are currently collaborating on a book with community members on seasonal harvesting and storage methods.

In 2017, they published Gift of the Lands: Líl̓wat Botanical Resources. The book describes how Cottonwood buds can be used to provide relief from bronchitis and other respiratory problems. Cottonwood trees have been used by Lil̓wat7úl for generations. The buds are rich in vitamins and can be soaked or filtered as a tea.

“It’s important to have access to our lands so we can record and share our traditional foods practices,” says Peters. “This way our people can remain connected.”

Smith adds that the lack of knowledge available on Indigenous food practices means it’s difficult for the community to learn about their way of life.

“The Elders should be able to teach their youth to ensure the knowledge of Indigenous food practices can continue.”

Food sovereignty in Canada

In January 2018, The Alaska Highway News, a publication that covers the Peace River Regional District, published a story on the Treaty 8 Nations, who filed a lawsuit claiming the hydroelectric dams in their territories restricted access to traditional foods and herbs for medicinal purposes – restricting their way of life and violating their constitutionally protected rights under Treaty 8.

The debate on Canada’s food sovereignty continues in parliament. The Government of Canada has recently completed public consultation for A Food Policy for Canada that is scheduled to be released mid-2018. The policy focuses on four pillars: Food Security, Health, Environment, and Sustainable Growth of the Agriculture and Food Sector. However, there are other groups like Food Secure Canada that are pushing for a policy that includes Indigenous food systems that are part of the culture and traditions of Indigenous people across Canada.

Peters suggests that Indigenous food sovereignty is currently maintained by each Indigenous community.

“[Indigenous] communities have always had their own internal mechanisms to enforce their sovereignty,” says Peters.

There are also significant efforts by federal, provincial and municipal governments to reconnect Indigenous communities to their land. In Feb 2017, the Saturn Island Local Trust Committee amended their project charter to include an Indigenous narrative and place names as part of their community plan. At a central location on the island, signage now reflects the place-based shared narrative of both the local Indigenous people, SENĆOŦEN, translated as the water people, and the Hul’quimi’num, meaning river people, as part of the settler history of the island. In the second phase of the community plan the Committee will better identify and protect places of significant historical value of Indigenous people.

The connection between land and food remains an important part of Peters’ identity and spirituality as a member of the Líl̓wat Nation.

“[This type of public acknowledgement] gives us a safe space to our inner knowing within our territories,” says Peters.