Why Food Soverignty is the answer to Food Insecurity in Indigenous Communities

It’s no secret that Canada, like many former European colonies, has a history rife with cultural genocide. Particularly with regards to Indigenous Peoples, our modern day circumstances are riddled with the consequences of assimilation, residential schools, forced relocation and biological warfare.

This last point may seem a little confusing at first. Whereas things like residential schools and the occupation of unceded land have mostly been discussed and apologized for (although, not fully resolved), the notion of colonization existing on a biological level is probably not something that has crossed the average Canadian’s mind.

In this sense, biological oppression does extend to disease — for instance, when Hudson Bay Trading Post blankets infected with small pox were gifted to First Nations communities who had no immunity to the disease. But, it also more largely applies to food, specifically access to it.

In this day and age where more consumers see the origin of a meal tracing back to a grocery store aisle than a complex ecosystem, it’s easy to forget that food is an foundational tool in building culture. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, many of the things that people did on a day to day basis revolved around food — harvesting it, hunting it, preparing it, eating it and celebrating it.

For many Native North American cultures, food is a gift given to us from the land which must be honoured with respect and more importantly, with reciprocity. It’s not just a right but a relationship bearing the responsibility to take care of the earth so that it can continue to nourish human and non-human people alike. As Robin Wall Kimmerer wrote in Braiding Sweetgrass, “Each person, human or not, is bound to every other in a reciprocal relationship. Just as all beings have a duty to me, I have a duty to them. If an animal gives its life to feed me, I am in turn bound to support its life. If I receive a stream’s gift of pure water, then I am responsible for returning a gift in kind. An integral part of a human’s education is to know those duties and how to perform them.”

Native American harvesting methodologies reflect this philosophy. Kimmerer writes, “Know the ways of the ones who take care of you, so that you may take care of them. Introduce yourself. Be accountable as the one who comes asking for life. Ask permission before taking. Abide by the answer. Never take the first. Never take the last. Take only what you need. Take only that which is given. Never take more than half. Leave some for others. Harvest in a way that minimizes harm. Use it respectfully. Never waste what you have taken. Share. Give thanks for what you have been given. Give a gift, in reciprocity for what you have taken. Sustain the ones who sustain you and the earth will last forever.”

Food is treated as more than just a necessary component of staying alive. It is also a source of celebration and tradition. It is medicine for the body, soul and mind and an act of reciprocity between a person and the land.

This is why when colonists arrived in North America, one of their main aggressions against Native Peoples was to control their food sources. For instance, overhunting Bison in the American Midwest as a way to starve Native Americans into submission so that colonists could extract gold from their lands. The RCMP deliberately exterminating Inuit sled dogs under the guise that they were carrying pathogens in order to force the Inuit to give up their nomadic lifestyle. Even today, well-intentioned pacific salmon fishing restrictions which were introduced due to declining numbers (because of commercial exploitation) limits coastal First Nations access to food.

The repercussions of this colonial agenda is something we bear witness to today. According to the Human Rights Watch, in Canada, 50.8% of First Nations living on reserves are food insecure. In comparison, only 11.1% of white Canadian families are food insecure.

According to the Human Rights Watch, 50.8% of First Nations Peoples living on reserves and 28.2% of Indigenous Peoples off reserve are food insecure in comparison to 11.1% of white families experiencing the same issue.

The higher rates of food insecurity experienced by Indigenous families in general can be attributed to the fact that existing options are too expensive. Purchasing power on reserves is often too low to buy healthy food at an accessible price. For instance, in a study done by Food Secure Canada, in order to purchase the Revised Northern Food Basket (RNFB) for a family of four for the duration of a month, it would take 19% of the median income in Timmins, Ontario. In comparison, it would take 36% or 56% of the median income in Moosonee and Fort Albany, respectively. This pattern holds steady for many northern reserves. As described in Invisible North by Alexandra Shimo, “If it were a country, Kashechewan’s income would be ranked at 104th in the world, below Iran (70th), Namibia (101st), and Sri Lanka (103rd). But these statistics do not give a true indication of Kashechewan’s poverty. In Iran, Namibia, and Sri Lanka, the salaries are low, but so too are the prices. In Kashechewan, the wages are low, but the costs are four times as high as in the rest of the country.”

Such a significant disparity is the result of two factors. Firstly, the costs required to transport fresh produce to reserves are higher than they are to cities as they are farther away. In the cases where they are not accessible by road all year round, they must be contacted by plane or boat. According to Michael McMullen who is the vice president for the North West Company Grocer, “It costs typically one cent a pound to send stock to Winnipeg, and 30 cents a pound to send something to Iqaluit by sea, but it costs $1.27/lb to air freight stock to Arviat in southern Nunavut, and $3.65/lb to fly something to Clyde River in northern Nunavut”.

Such an increase is compounded by the fact that on many reserves, one grocery store can have a monopoly on the market enabling them to charge higher than average costs without the pressure of competition. According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, the Northwest Grocery Store has no competition in at least 70% of northern communities. As explained by CBC Manitoba, “The North West Company, through its NorthMart and Northern Stores, has developed almost complete control over every aspect of the lives of some First Nations people, their communities and their local governments. A Northern Store can serve as the community’s grocery store, gas bar, post office, pharmacy, motor vehicle dealership, electronics and furniture retail sales outlet, supplier of doctors (Amdoc), tax preparer and even the bank, as it does in God’s Lake Narrows”.

However, simply explaining a lack of food security as the result of remote locations and grocery store monopolies fails to capture the deeply rooted historical factors as to why such inequities have emerged. The reason many First Nations communities have come to be dependent on southern systems of food production is because their own traditional methods have been inhibited by colonization.

Environmentally, the harsh weather conditions characteristic of northern communities make it difficult to cultivate anything other than naturalized vegetation for an extended growing season. However, endemic game and plants have often been the subject of commercial exploitation which render them scarce today. As a result of this, various levels of government have periodically instituted bans and moratoriums on certain species (cod, salmon, and seals to name a few) which completely restrict access to Indigenous food sources.

Perhaps even more significant than this is the loss of traditional knowledge. As Cherokee scholar Jeff Corntasel writes: “sustainability is intrinsically linked to the transmission of traditional knowledge and cultural practices to future generations. Without the ability of community members to continuously renew their relationships with the natural world (i.e., gathering medicines, hunting and fishing, basket-making, etc.), indigenous languages, traditional teachings, family structures, and livelihoods of that community are all jeopardized”.

The residential school system attempted to eradicate such culture by assimilating children into Euro-canadian society thereby preventing them from inheriting and passing on that knowledge. Due to the magnitude of the generations traumatized by this system, traditional knowledge is not as widespread as it once was, a fact which is only expedited as community Elders continue to pass. As written in Canadian Food Studies: “With the passing of each elder, the unique food history, personal stories and Indigenous food knowledge also disappears.” And so, as resources diminish, so too does the opportunity to share traditional knowledge wane. This positive feedback loop increases the vulnerability of Indigenous communities, exposing them to reliance on southern providers.

In order to improve food security amongst Indigenous communities, we must mitigate it’s main inhibitors — namely, the inadequate purchasing power constituted by disproportionate food prices as a result of lengthy transportation routes and grocer monopolies, unfavourable environmental conditions and a loss of traditional knowledge. While there have been proposals to decrease the costs associated with transport, provide subsidies to Indigenous consumers or increase salaries, such approaches do not fully resolve the cultural component of the problem and so are not sustainable in the long term.

Rather, we must pay specific attention to increasing the transmission of traditional knowledge as such teachings have permitted Indigenous Peoples to live in harmony with the land since time immemorial. This set of knowledge also responds to otherwise unfavourable environmental conditions in a sustainable way, which is mostly unlike western cultivation practises. By being able to produce food using traditional pathways, communities can decrease their dependence on southern producers and increase their options. Such a concept of restoring the control of food systems to Indigenous communities is termed Food Sovereignty. This approach has additional benefits as food and participation in it’s cultivation is often regarded in Indigenous communities as healing. As Kimmerer writes in Braiding Sweetgrass in reference her people’s oral tradition “…like to imagine that when Skywoman first came and scattered her handful of seeds across Turtle Island, she was sowing sustenance for the body and also for the mind, emotion and spirit…”.

Activator at The Knowledge Society | A Sandwich or Two Founder