Chewing through red tape to save Indigenous foods

It’s feast time.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 17/12/2018 (1556 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It’s feast time.

For most of us, food is associated with family.

Food is where we centre ourselves. Whether it be preparing it, cooking it, or eating it — food is what we use to ground ourselves, connect, and grow.

Food is culture.

Food is one of the first things Indigenous peoples shared with newcomers, setting the stage for a relationship.

Sixteenth-century French explorer Jacques Cartier was given evergreen bark and winter leaf tea — a medicine that cured his scurvy and saved his life.

The Wampanoag people not only shared turkey with the Pilgrims in 1621 — setting the stage for what we now call Thanksgiving — but deer, fish, and corn, too.

Pemmican — made from mixing dried bison, moose or caribou and berries — was the most important trading good in 19th century Manitoba and the entire foundation for the fur trade.

You get the point: food is a way of life for all peoples.

Indigenous foods, however, have been historically the most controlled foods in Canada.

Hunting and fishing rights, for example, were guaranteed under treaties, but then made impossible by controlling where and how you could hunt or fish… not to mention it was illegal to leave the reserve. Ceremonies were banned, including the sharing of food.

With this restriction on movement and food dependence came the rise of bannock, a staple that came with food rations, processed flour, and a whole lot of health challenges. One of the primary goals of residential school was essentially turning Indigenous peoples into farmers and changing how people fed themselves and interacted with the land.

“Food is still a large part of how Indigenous peoples form our culture,” says Indigenous food activist Glenda Abbott, “but the legislation is confusing and hampers many of us to do so.”

Most medicines now grow on “private land” and require permission to harvest. Laws surrounding traditional hunting and fishing practices — such as the recent “night hunting” conflict in Manitoba — continue to bring conservation officers and Indigenous peoples in conflict. Then, there’s consumption.

“If you want to serve caribou, moose and deer, it’s provincially legislated. If you want to eat fowl, such as duck or geese, it’s federally legislated. You could spend all day trying to get approval speaking to government departments just to try and follow the law,” Abbott says.

Yet, traditional meat in Indigenous communities is one of the most important tools used to fight diabetes and ensure independence, what is called “food sovereignty.”

Private consumption of traditionally hunted and fished meat is fine, but sharing it with the public — including via sale — is where the law enters.

Restaurants, for example, can sell only farmed or approved “wild game,” except in rare circumstances and under strict conditions. Indigenous chefs such as Rich Francis in Toronto have called such controls a contravention to reconciliation and instead offers “dinner parties,” where foods such as seal, muktuk, and moose can be served.

In New Brunswick, authorities charged Michael Reynolds, a Maliseet hunter from Woodstock First Nation, for “illegally” selling moose meat. Reynolds claimed it was a part of his livelihood and a treaty right. The courts eventually chose to toss out the charges, and refused to define whether or not selling traditional meat is a violation of a law.

The situation surrounding Indigenous food (in particular, meat) is in legal limbo — and ripe for a march to the Supreme Court.

For example: Indigenous hunters bag a moose. As is traditional and cultural practice in northern communities, the moose is skinned and cut into pieces that are gifted throughout the community. Some is used to feed staff at the local band office at their holiday feast. The rest is used in the potluck for students at a local school doing an “on the land” educational program.

Is this commercial use? Is this a treaty right? Should governments intervene?

Meat caught by a “treaty Indian” comes under a whole new set of rules — even meat caught in the same space and on the same day by a non-Indigenous person.

Welcome to limbo.

The worry is wild meat is tainted and carries pathogens and diseases.

“That problem is real, but most times occurs with farmed meat and how it infects meat in the natural world,” Abbott says, pointing to recent studies showing infectious sicknesses in farmed salmon and elk.

This has all led to a situation where Indigenous individuals, families, and organizations cannot have a full relationship with their traditional foods, identities, and the land and water due to laws, red tape, and health concerns.

Food is related to our identity but, like most things Indigenous in Canada, our identities are legislated, controlled, and limited.

The solution, Abbott proposes, is to formulate Indigenous laws. She is on a national campaign with the organization Indigenous Food in the City to try to bring awareness regarding the complexities and confusions, and try to lift some of the limitations communities are facing.

She says food is crucial for connecting Indigenous peoples in urban environments to their home territories and cultures, and the organization intends to release a report in the new year on the importance of all Canadians in understanding the value of Indigenous food.

“We need to not wait for provinces and federal governments to come up with laws that govern our foods, but work with Indigenous governments to make laws that govern ourselves,” she says.

It may be feast time, but it’s also truth time. Indigenous food continues to be controlled and legislated and, with this, reconciliation is off the menu.

Niigaan Sinclair

Niigaan Sinclair

Niigaan Sinclair is Anishinaabe and is a columnist at the Winnipeg Free Press.

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