The History of Food in Canada Is the History of Colonialism | The Walrus
Mark bell stops his truck at the edge of town, where the bush road begins. Leaving the engine running, he grabs a cigarette from a pack of Putter’s on the dashboard and walks into the trees. After sprinkling out a bit of tobacco from the cigarette, an offering of thanks to the Creator, he lights the smoke. “That’s as traditional as I get,” says Bell.
Determined to fill his freezer with food, he gets back in the truck and keeps driving into the predawn darkness. A band councillor at Aroland First Nation, part of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, Bell lives in Nakina, Ontario, 341 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay. Since last March, when the North West Company closed the Northern store in Nakina, the only groceries available in town are the selection of chocolate bars, chips, and shrink-wrapped sandwiches at the gas station. The closest supermarket is the No Frills in Geraldton, about forty-five minutes south—131 kilometres round trip.
Bell hunts, fishes, and traps for much of his food. Moose is his primary source of meat, but it has been over a year since he killed one—a butcher processed it into 486 pounds of steaks, roasts, sausages, pepperettes, and ground meat, and it has lasted until now. If he sees a moose today and gets a clear shot, it will feed him, his wife, Siru Kantola, and daughter, Taiga, as well as his father, brother, and sister-in-law, for another year.
It’s just past 6 a.m. on a Saturday near the end of October—already the middle of the moose-hunting season. Bell has heard from friends that moose have been spotted around here recently. Right away, he sees big hoofprints; some, he estimates, are only twenty minutes old. There are bare trees with broken branches from where moose rubbed their antlers to remove the “velvet”—the soft fuzz that nourishes the fast-growing bones while they regenerate every year. As the truck jostles along the bumpy road, Bell begins to see more tracks, then wolf markings mingled with the moose prints.
Reaching a point in the trail impassable even in his heavy-duty pickup, Bell pulls a quad, an all-terrain vehicle, off the trailer. Slinging a bolt-action rifle over his shoulder, he pushes farther into the bush. The quad bounces up and down as it traverses hills and valleys, charging over ice and through slush and mashing down vegetation. All the while, Bell swivels his head left and right, scanning the horizon for any sign of movement. But nothing moves. The birds have all flown south for the winter. There is little breeze, and the remaining trees have no leaves to sway. The landscape is silent, motionless, and to Bell, a vast, empty fridge.
Bell is one of many Indigenous people who are privately and publicly engaged with the restoration of their food cultures, returning to a more traditional diet through activities like sustenance hunting—practices long under threat of eradication but not gone forever.
Indigenous food sovereignty was decimated by design: the separation of people from their historic food systems and land is not a side effect of colonialism but a function of it. Canada’s formation is a history of legislating First Nations, Inuit, and Métis out of existence, including by erasing Indigenous food cultures: the Gradual Civilization Act, the banning of potlatch ceremonies, the signing of treaties that exchanged life-sustaining hunting grounds for farmland, livestock, and pitiful amounts of cash. All of it was designed with the purpose of elimination through assimilation.
From the beginning, the benefits of the exchange between the diets of early settlers and Indigenous peoples were largely one-sided. Take pemmican, for instance: a traditional, Indigenous, protein-rich mixture of powdered meat, grease, and occasionally dried berries—and a good representation of the inequitable food bargain Indigenous people were forced to strike when settlers arrived on this continent. Early nineteenth-century fur traders, unable to fill their boats with enough corn and wild rice to survive their long travels, depended on exchanging with Cree, Assiniboine, and Métis for the shelf-stable provision. When the Hudson’s Bay Company established a monopoly over the fur trade in 1821, its market control enabled the company to drive the price of pemmican down—which, in turn, forced an increase in production to make up for the lost revenue. “This was a contributing factor in [the] elimination of the plains bison,” writes Lenore Newman in her book Speaking in Cod Tongues: A Canadian Culinary Journey. “Collapse of the bison herds placed the surviving people of the plains in a situation of dependence on the government for famine relief . . . . The grim aftermath of the pemmican trade on the plains saw the Indigenous peoples of the region nearly eliminated.”
Catharine Parr Traill, who documented her experiences as an early nineteenth-century settler in Ontario in a series of books, describes Europeans thriving by adapting Indigenous food-preparation techniques, harvesting wild rice in the fall and maple syrup in the spring. Traill writes of a consistent exchange with the Hiawatha First Nation (then called the Mississauga Anishinaabe people); its baskets, mats, ducks, and venison were traded for settlers’ pork, flour, potatoes, or clothing—an exchange that would be ruinous over time.
While Indigenous food systems were being dismantled, elsewhere in the world food itself began to change. From the early eighteenth to the mid-twentieth century, industrial production, preservation science, manufacturing, marketing, and the hospitality industries transformed the way people ate. This is the period that gave us the refrigerator and the gas stove, food-safety regulations, canning, and frozen dinners. At this same transformative moment in history, Canada’s government engaged in a concentrated effort to eradicate Indigenous peoples and their cultures, including by squelching language, self-government, land use, and hunting rights. Indigenous food practices were excluded as most of the world’s food practices modernized and commercialized (not always for the better), and most Indigenous people were forced to rely on processed and expensive provisions.
Over a century later, food insecurity—inadequate access to affordable, safe, nutritious food, resulting in negative physical-, mental-, and social-health outcomes—is far more common among Indigenous people throughout Canada than in the population of the country overall. Forced to transition over generations to a Western diet, which many Indigenous communities cannot necessarily access or afford, First Nations people, Inuit, and Métis people suffer higher rates of diabetes and cardiovascular-health issues as a result. The social and spiritual losses are far more difficult to measure.
In northern Canada, supermarket staples, which generally need to be flown in, often cost double what they do in southern urban areas. The federal government began subsidizing the price of shipping food to northern communities in the late 1960s through Canada Post’s Northern Air Stage Program, ostensibly to increase residents’ access to healthy food. In 2011, the program was replaced by one called Nutrition North, in which select vendors receive subsidies for shipping food to the area; the intentions were to increase consumer choice, lower prices, and make healthy produce more accessible. Instead, northern communities have received grapes for $28 a kilo and $9 boxes of Corn Flakes.
The non-profit alliance Food Secure Canada says that while food insecurity in the North is well documented, there is no comprehensive analysis of exactly how prevalent it is. A study conducted by the University of Waterloo found that 70 percent of the population of Fort Albany First Nation in northern Ontario was food insecure; in a separate report, Food Secure Canada estimated that residents of that community would need to spend 56 percent of their income to purchase a basic nutritious diet.
“Nutrition North was doomed to fail from the beginning because it’s a non-Indigenous solution to a very complex issue,” says Joseph LeBlanc, who is Odawa from Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory on Manitoulin Island in Lake Huron and the former executive director of the Social Planning Council of Sudbury. “Nutrition North was explicitly a market-based approach. What they did, however, was further entrench an exploitative market relationship that corporations have in Northern communities. It reinforced the existing food system as if it were the only food system.”
LeBlanc says non-Indigenous Canadians are looking at the problem of food insecurity through the wrong lens. “How do we make food cheaper at the store? Where do you get food in an urban context?” he asks, rhetorically. “That’s very much a Western economic approach.” Even the presumption that there is a standard diet for all Canadians is fundamentally colonialist, says Teri Morrow, a dietitian at Six Nations of the Grand River in southwestern Ontario. “Canadians ate the way we ate when they got here,” says Morrow. “Hunters up north don’t need lettuce. There’s roots and tubers, there’s lichen—a ton of things.”
For example, the Oneida Nation of the Thames grows flint corn. The corn is dried and cooked with lye and hardwood ash, which breaks down the outer shell and increases the calcium and iron content in the cornmeal. The cornbread made from this often also contains beans, nuts, seeds, and berries. “So the nutritional content, compared to a bread from the grocery store made with wheat, it’s higher,” Morrow says. “Because now you’ve got protein, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, fibre—all these aspects that are within the corn itself. And that means that our people don’t have to necessarily consume milk or dairy products.”
In addition to helping to provide access to a Western diet, LeBlanc says, the Canadian government should consider getting out of the way of Indigenous people’s ability to sustain their food practices. The issue isn’t figuring out how to lower the cost of a box of Corn Flakes—it’s thinking that Corn Flakes ever represented a good solution in the first place.
Bell had a father, grandfather, and uncles who taught him to hunt, and he’s one of very few in his community who are able to source food in this way. Some of his friends did not have a chance to learn hunting as teenagers, as he did. Others don’t have the means. Bell’s truck, which he needs to make it over the unpaved roads, cost more than his house, and it can be $150 in gas just to get up to the hunting area. He spent at least $2,700 on the moose hunt last season.
Not being able to hunt is just one of the ways that being colonized separated Indigenous people from their food cultures. In the fall of 2016, at the Natoaganeg Community Food Centre in Eel Ground First Nation—a Mi’kmaq First Nation community of about 1,000, a few kilometres down the road from Miramichi, New Brunswick—the organizers of a drop-in meal and food-basket program tried to incorporate moose after community hunters offered to contribute the meat. Administrators were surprised at how few were fans, even elders. “People would say, “It’s too gamy,” says program coordinator Erica Ward. “We’re located near town, and growing up, you went to the grocery store. You didn’t go to the forest and take down a moose.”
The kitchen experimented with an apple-juice braise, to sweeten the meat. People liked it. The centre started using more moose and gradually removed low-quality protein, like hot dogs, from its food-distribution system. Soon, it began using additional varieties of game and wild seafood—partridge, eel, shad, bass—until the ingredients became entrenched. “We’ve become this test kitchen for traditional food,” says Ward. “Now I have friends the same age [as I am] who are hunting more and more.”
Even where Indigenous communities have managed to retain some of their food practices, legal obstructions and environmental threats make them difficult to sustain. In theory, the Canadian government is constitutionally required to consult with Indigenous communities when contemplating decisions that may adversely impact treaty rights. In actuality, this is a contentious and frequently litigated issue.
In many parts of Canada, Indigenous people’s ability to hunt, fish, forage, and farm is compromised by the degradation of land and water through industrial-scale resource extraction. In other places—often described as “protected”—such as national parks, these activities are frequently prohibited by law. The formation of Canada’s parks, seen by many non-Indigenous people as wildlife refuges where nature is safe from human threat, has long disrupted Indigenous food sovereignty. Canada’s first national park, Banff, “was predicated on the displacement of diverse Indigenous communities,” says Courtney Mason, author of Spirits of the Rockies: Reasserting an Indigenous Presence in Banff National Park. “This was facilitated by park management and supported by the police, missionaries, and tourism entrepreneurs. In part, they were attempting to curb Indigenous subsistence practices of hunting, fishing and gathering, in order to protect emerging sport hunting and fishing tourism economies operating inside the park.” Further development of Canadian parks was largely modelled after Banff, incurring similar displacement and cultural damage. It remains illegal for Indigenous people to hunt in about half of the country’s national parks.
Even where it is possible to hunt, with a few exceptions, wild meat cannot be sold in restaurants, butcher shops, or grocery stores in Canada. This means hunters cannot earn a living from their efforts, and many Indigenous foods cannot be shared in retail or commercial settings beyond reserves or special, limited-licence events. Many coastal communities face a similar challenge as, even while living off of seal meat, the European Union’s ban on seal imports has made it impossible for families to earn revenue from the sale of skins.
There are also small signs of hope. About twenty-five years ago in northwestern Ontario, Rainy River First Nations (an amalgamation of seven historical Saulteaux bands), began a successful project to rehabilitate their sturgeon stocks: the population of the fish, which can grow up to 400 pounds, had dwindled due to overharvesting and pollution. In the last two years, Rainy River First Nations donated nearly thirty juvenile sturgeon to Ochiichagwe’Babigo’Ining Ojibway Nation, which has partnered with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry and Ontario Power Generation to reintroduce the fish into the Winnipeg River. There are other examples, but they are scattered; larger-scale change will require a more basic reexamination of how land is managed across Canada.
One of the problems, says LeBlanc, is that Canada knows many people depend on the land for their food, yet governments manage our natural resources as if they didn’t exist: “The [Ministry of Natural Resources] doesn’t have the capacity to manage the forest properly, and I don’t believe the Crown has the will to make that happen. Because the interest is in getting money from stumpage.” Genuine transformation, LeBlanc believes, will only come from challenging the seemingly unassailable prioritization of resource extraction. “There’s an opportunity to manage food sources. This would mean a shift in the paradigm from extraction of timber and minerals to the inclusion of food sources.”
It has been twelve hours out in the bush, and the sun is setting; Mark Bell has eaten a ham-and-cheese sandwich and used a tank of gas, and nothing has crossed his field of vision except a rabbit and a fox. A hunter is never guaranteed anything. Last year, Bell spent seven days out here without even seeing a moose.
If he takes one now, that will be it for the year—he doesn’t need any more. (Bell will shoot any additional moose he sees on the road, though, and give the meat to elders.) Likewise for beaver, which he does not like eating (though he’ll use it as bait for trapping pine martens), and lynx, which his wife doesn’t want him cooking in the house. Kantola is mostly vegetarian; she likes wild meat but isn’t thrilled at how much time her husband spends up here while she is alone with their two-year-old.
The sweet spot for hunting moose is the mating season, which begins at first frost, September 10 last fall. (Hunters don’t go after moose in summer because the meat spoils in the heat, and by winter the females are pregnant.) With the moose bulls geared for procreation, Bell mimics the female’s call (he can do this with a horn or with his own mouth), listening for a response. Nothing but silence greets him. “I always start to feel pressure about this time,” he says. “I’m going into my trapping season now. I should already be setting traps.” Still, it’s been a beautiful, tranquil day. “When I come out here, I’m pretty thankful for what I’m able to do and where I’m able to be. It’s beautiful land.”
Back in Nakina that night, he eats a bowl of moose chili with macaroni, watches a little hockey, and goes to bed on the sofa so he won’t wake Kantola and Taiga when he gets up early again the next morning. The chest freezer downstairs still has a few meals’ worth of moose left, in addition to other country foods—wild blueberries, walleye, speckled trout. But they are nearing the end of their supply.
In the interior of BC, nestled in the Fraser Canyon region, sits Xaxli’p territory—green hills covered in fir and pine trees, sitting in the shadow of snow-capped mountains and one of eleven communities that make up the St’át’imc First Nation. Over the course of decades, the clear-cutting taking place in the surrounding areas has destabilized the ecosystem, substantially disrupting traditional food supplies. In the 1970s, hunters started spotting moose less and less frequently. Soon, the people found other forest foods essential to their lives—deer, wild sunflowers, cow parsnip—disappearing as well.
In Canada, most parks, lakes, and forests are Crown land, governed by federal and provincial ministries (like the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry in Ontario), which are supposed to oversee management for both private and public use. In LeBlanc’s view, private companies in the business of resource extraction have more say over the use of forests than do people who have had a relationship with the land for centuries and continue to live on, near, upstream of, downwind of, or otherwise adjacent to them. “From contact until now,” he says, “land management in Ontario has been about the extraction of resources.”
LeBlanc says there is a legal basis for implementing more food-oriented policies. This means, for instance, reforming training for forest-management authorities to include Indigenous world views and rights. In forested areas like the Fraser River canyon there is an alternative, which he and many others advocate for: community-based forestry, in which land is managed by and for the people who live on it. “Community forestry is a movement that started in Nepal in the seventies,” says Susan Mulkey, communications manager for the BC Community Forest Association, “where the government recognized that degraded land, the best stewards of that, the best people to bring it back to productivity, are the communities themselves.” The idea, LeBlanc says, isn’t to reject industry outright but to take an approach that incorporates economic and employment interests without excluding the use of land as a food source.
In the late 1990s, BC began a pilot project for community-based forest management; it now includes over sixty community forests that produce just under 3 percent of the provincial timber harvest. In 2011, following decades of protracted conflict with the government and logging companies, the Xaxli’p reached an interim compromise: the Xaxli’p Community Forest Corporation they had established a few years earlier was given a twenty-five-year tenure over the trees in most, but not all, of their territory. (Prior to that agreement, the province had given a number of companies the right to harvest timber on Xaxli’p land.) Restoring the land and creating a sustainable economy are goals that are built into XCFC‘s corporate mission. The plan is to eventually harvest timber in sustainable quantities and using sustainable methods.
“Our long-term goal is that our community forest will be self-sufficient,” says Nora Billy, a member of the XCFC board of directors. The XCFC plans to balance the conservation mandate with value-added timber harvesting, manufacturing products for sale in addition to selling raw logs. The first step has been ecocultural restoration. This includes promoting moose habitat by removing planted pine trees (to encourage the growth of willow and other wetland shrubs), leaving old fallen trees intact for animal habitat, purifying water, and thinning forest areas that have grown too dense due to post-logging replanting and government fire-suppression techniques. Moose and deer have begun returning to the area.
More than 4,000 kilometres east of Xaxli’p territory, Charlotte Wolfrey spends her weekends fishing and hunting outside of Rigolet, on the coast of Labrador. Over a spring weekend, the retired environmental researcher and current AngajukKâk (mayor) of Rigolet caught eight Arctic char, each one weighing about five pounds, and spent a few hours smoking the fish in a homemade apparatus constructed with wood and chicken wire. She also picks fruit—bakeapples, crowberries, partridgeberries—eating it fresh for a couple weeks before freezing the remainder for the winter. In the fall, she hunts geese and duck, then beaver, lynx, and fox as it gets colder. She estimates that as much as 70 percent of her diet comes from fishing, hunting, and foraging wild foods; the most important source of all is seal.
“Inuit would not have survived without seal,” Wolfrey says. During the 1960s, when Wolfrey was a child, seal was essential for food and clothing: boots, mitts, and pants were all made from its hide and fur. The blubber was rendered to make candles, the skin used to make durable lines for dog teams and boats or cleaned and sold for income. Sled dogs—still a major source of transportation—lived on seal meat too. “When I grew up, we went around on dog teams. We didn’t have anything like a Ski-Doo. It kept our dogs alive.”
At the beginning of the Second World War, the Royal Canadian Air Force identified nearby Goose Bay as a strategic location for a base. Beginning with a massive construction phase and continuing after the war, the base meant that Goose Bay absorbed people from the surrounding areas, including Rigolet, further disrupting traditional ways of life. “A lot of people moved there for work, to get into the white economy,” Wolfrey says, “instead of fishing and hunting and trapping.”
People in Rigolet don’t depend on seal as much as they used to, but it is still widely used. Some people still operate dog sleds, though mostly for recreation or tourism rather than basic transportation. And they still use seal to feed their animals. Last fall, Wolfrey and her husband caught a ranger (or harbour) seal and shared the meat with other families in the community. “We even eat the flippers. They’re a delicacy. You boil them up and take the skin off and eat the inside parts, and it’s a real rich kind of fat. Maybe some potatoes with it sometimes, but mostly on its own.”
In a large city, food choices are horizontal, like a buffet, each option available independently of the others. In many Indigenous food systems, the menu is much more vertical, like a Jenga tower, in which many pieces support the entire structure; removing one element can topple everything. Within this food system, an animal like seal is not just a source of protein but also of fuel, clothing, tools, and commerce—all of it devastated in 2009, when the European Union, prompted by environmental activists, banned the import of seal products.
One of the major organizations that protested sealing was Greenpeace; since the ban was instituted, it has acknowledged and apologized for its role in campaigning against sealing and in particular its failure to distinguish between the commercial industry and Indigenous traditional practices. In the wake of that acknowledgement, the EU granted exemptions from the ban to Inuit communities in Nunavut and to Inuvialuit in the Northwest Territories. But, for many, this was too late to make a difference: after the EU ban, the price of seal pelts dropped from $105 to $15. And because it was often Inuit and First Nations who were engaged in the commercial seal hunt—there isn’t a neat divide between “traditional” and “commercial” use—when the market evaporated, so did the ability of Rigolet and other Inuit and First Nations communities to earn revenue through this core part of their culture.
In addition to the economic devastation caused by the EU ban, Rigolet’s seals are under environmental threat from the nearby dam construction at Muskrat Falls. Opponents of the dam worry that it will destabilize geologic formations and allow unsafe levels of methylmercury (which is created when inorganic mercury is released and dissolves into freshwater or seawater), to leach into the local food supply. Two hundred researchers and scholars have signed a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to protest the dam, writing that Muskrat Falls “poses tremendous risks to Indigenous peoples and sovereignty, to Canada’s commitment to reconciliation, to fish, wildlife and the broader integrity of the Churchill River ecology.”
“If the seals are contaminated by methylmercury, then people will be afraid to eat them,” says Wolfrey. “Once people stop eating seal, they won’t be teaching their children to eat seal. Their grandchildren won’t grow up eating seal. That’s what I’m most afraid of. Seal is part of what makes us who we are.”
Wolfrey told me that seal is an acquired taste, but most Canadians never have a chance to develop an appreciation for it. In Toronto, where Indigenous and Indigenous-themed restaurants have garnered recent interest and can serve as urban emissaries for Indigenous cooking, chef Joseph Shawana is determined to do something about that. “I tried veg oil, canola, good olive oil, cheap olive oil,” says Shawana as he pinches coarse salt in his fingers, his wrist softening as he lets the salt rain down over a dark, nearly black, hunk of meat. “Then I started using ghee. And I was like, ‘This actually helps the seal flavour a lot more.’”
In front of the stove at his restaurant—Kū-Kŭm Kitchen, in an affluent midtown Toronto neighbourhood—Shawana has a tray of seal loin divided into four-ounce portions. Cranking the gas flame, Shawana ladles a generous glug of ghee into a small pan and gently lays the meat down. After he has seared a crust on each side, he sets the meat on a cutting board to rest, then slices it into strips, plating it with wedges of roasted beet, caribou moss, and a drizzle of sweetgrass-infused oil. The meat has the character of a slightly chewy cut of beef crossed with the iron-rich minerality of liver.
Shawana is Odawa and (like LeBlanc) grew up in Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory on Manitoulin Island. There are no seals around Lake Huron. “I never ate seal until a year and a half ago,” he says. When he was ten, Shawana started to learn hunting, butchery, and fishing from his uncles. He foraged in the wilderness with friends, pulling the bark back on cedar and eating the membrane and chewing on a liquorice-tasting purple root they called “Indian candy” (one of several foods given that name, which also often refers to candied salmon).
At sixteen, Shawana started cooking at an off-reserve restaurant on Manitoulin—burgers and fries for up to 200 diners a day during the tourist season—then moved to Toronto and worked at a number of restaurants. In 2016, as the executive chef of board-game parlour Snakes & Lattes, he composed a one-night Indigenous menu of elk, fry bread, and Algonquin corn (meaty and sweeter than the kind you see in grocery stores), which Shawana dehydrated and ground into meal for grits, serving it with Parmesan cheese and seared scallops. It sold out in advance. “That’s when I knew I was really on to something—that I can connect my culture with my training.”
The enthusiastic reception led him to partner with his employer, Ben Castanie, to open Kū-Kŭm. From the beginning, Shawana didn’t want to cook exclusively his own dishes—he wanted to introduce diners to a spectrum of Indigenous foods: he mixes and matches elements from his culture (Odawa), his wife’s (Cree), and other Indigenous communities’ and combines it all with French cooking techniques. He’s less concerned with reproducing any one traditional dish or preparation so much as presenting ingredients to the restaurant’s patrons, serving as an ambassador, and learning more himself as he goes. “I’m using the restaurant as a platform to showcase Indigenous cuisine in Canada as a whole,” Shawana says. “I wanted seal on the menu as a way to pay respects to the people up north. I wanted to get muskox but . . . I couldn’t.”
A few months after the restaurant opened, Shawana learned that a petition was circulating to demand he take seal off the menu. This was followed by a counterpetition and ignited a series of media stories about Kū-Kŭm, shifting the focus from alleged animal cruelty to a discussion about the importance of seal in many communities and the history of misunderstanding by environmental and animal-rights activists. Shawana’s reservation book filled up, and soon the thirty-seat restaurant was packed—people were coming to eat not just seal but pemmican, venison, and pine-needle sorbet.
Shawana now has his sights set on a legal obstacle to the preservation of Indigenous cuisines: the limits on selling hunted game meat. The elk, bison, and boar that have appeared on his restaurant’s menu have been farmed.
“I’ve been trying to get enough balls to serve wild game in here,” says Shawana, “and to see what the repercussions would be. If they close us down, they close us down.” (He is now in talks with the provincial government to secure permission to sell wild game.) Serving actual game would allow Shawana to present a more authentic version of the cultures he is representing and create a vital revenue stream for Indigenous hunters—a way for urban centres to not just be ambassadors but contribute financially to the restoration of food systems.
On the second morning of Mark Bell’s moose hunt, he gets up at six, eats a bowl of instant oatmeal, and loads his gear. He waits until he arrives at the entrance to the bush road to offer tobacco (itself another example of a First Nations agricultural product that is now bound up with many regulations) this time emptying out a whole cigarette instead of just a pinch. Despite an outward ambivalence, he is starting to fidget, compulsively scanning radio stations and fiddling with a rifle magazine with one hand while steering with the other, his thumb caressing one of the copper-tipped cartridges.
After another twelve hours of searching, Bell turns south toward home, empty handed. Tomorrow is Monday, and he has to go to his job; he can’t hunt next weekend because he needs to take his wife and daughter to Thunder Bay. “Loser” by Beck comes on the radio. He turns the stereo up louder than it’s been all day, then cranks it even more as Meek Mill’s “Lord Knows” starts playing, the smash of bass rattling the seat belts. Bell is frustrated. But he has faith. “Next week, I’m going start looking for beavers. My moose gun will be with me all the time—eventually, I’m gonna see one.”
Joseph LeBlanc has long believed that there are many more Indigenous people wanting to participate in traditional food activities like hunting than actually do so. To find out what was preventing them, he conducted a community food assessment in Sudbury that identified cost and knowledge as barriers to entry. In 2016, the community launched the Family Hunt Camp; in the fall, families are paired with elders and experienced hunters, who share their knowledge and lead people out on their first hunts. Participants learn not just how to safely operate a gun but about spirituality, philosophy, the relationship between animals and humans, and why you don’t shoot something that’s running away or doesn’t know you’re there (the animal is not offering its body, plus chances of a clean kill diminish with a moving target). New hunters can also help supply a food bank in downtown Sudbury, where people give tobacco in exchange for elk, deer, or moose meat.
LeBlanc says that, over the years, he’s been told by many non-Indigenous people that it is simply too late to save what has been lost. For him, this is both untrue and a device used to perpetuate damage to the land and Indigenous peoples. “It’s a tidy, nice bow to put on top of 100 years of colonialism to say, ‘Our job’s pretty well done—all you need to do is let go of your romantic ideals and we can get on with civilizing you.’”
But LeBlanc, Wolfrey, Shawana, members of the Xaxli’p Community Forest Corporation, Morrow, Bell, and many others are not letting go. “The fundamental element of resurgence, resistance, whatever you want to call it, that’s happening in Indigenous youth in particular, is challenging that directly,” says LeBlanc. “I know individuals who do live a traditional lifestyle, in remote communities. They’re not waving a flag around or flying down to Toronto for meetings or answering phone calls from reporters or academics. They’re busy completely entrenched in a traditional lifestyle. And they’re some of the happiest, most food-secure people out there.”
On a policy level, says LeBlanc, decisions about the use of land still exclude Indigenous world views. “There’s a transition that needs to happen in Canada at some point. Ultimately, all of our legislators and decision makers are products of our school system. And they’ve all been conditioned to think of us in a particular light . . . . We haven’t even gotten to the point where we can have a truthful conversation about land.”
This content was originally published here.