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The Importance of building indigenous food sovereignty

8 March 2021 by Avery Parkinson, Big Idea Ventures


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 (a list of all the basic food essentials in northern communities) 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 – both of which are reserves.

This pattern holds steady for many northern reserves, and is only emphasized due to the relative purchasing power people on those reserves have – i.e. income relative to expenses. 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.”

Photo 1. LaLoche Reserve, Saskatchewan, Canada Credit: Macleans 

Such a significant disparity is the result of two main factors. First, the costs required to transport fresh produce to reserves are higher than they are to cities as the reserves are farther away from farms. In the cases where reserves 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”.

Photo 2. Northern Store in Bearskin Lake. Credit: NetNewsLedger

However, simply explaining food insecurity 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 for the Indigenous communities to farm these 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 which took place from the mid 1880s until the late 20th century attempted to eradicate such culture by assimilating children into Euro-canadian society thereby preventing them from inheriting and passing on that knowledge. Stories of children experiencing sexual, physical and emotional abuse, living and unsanitary conditions, being forced to participate in western tradition and being denied their own traditions are common amongst survivors. 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.

Photo 3. Dancer at the Calgary Stampede Credit: Canadian Geographic

In order to improve food security amongst Indigenous communities, we must mitigate its 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 ranges from growing and hunting practices to an intrinsic understanding and respect for the land. 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 its cultivation is often regarded in Indigenous communities as healing – “food is medicine for the body, mind and soul”. And like many healing practices, it not only has potential to reinforce Indigenous food systems, but if done correctly, can help improve global food systems as well.

To learn more about Indigenous Food Sovereignty, visit: https://www.indigenousfoodsystems.org/food-sovereignty

This report was contributed by knowledge partner: