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Decolonizing food systems: A journey into an uncomfortable but necessary place

| December 3, 2015
Decolonizing food systems: A journey into an uncomfortable but necessary place

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Imagine you live in a lovely home. There is space for you, your partner and children to play, work, eat -- to live together. Your yard has an abundance of gardens that bring beauty and provide food. Your family is strong, content and thriving. Then one day, some people come to the door. They are new to the neighbourhood and do not yet have a place to stay, know where the best sources of food are, or truly understand just how cold a Canadian winter can be. So you welcome them in, though it is not clear how long they will be staying. Soon they take up more and more room and it is harder for your family members to do what they used to take for granted. Things are getting more and more uncomfortable and the "guests" start to seem threatening. They invade every aspect of your home, use your tools, play, eat and sleep in the spaces that were once yours without question. Eventually, you and your family are forced from your home. You are allowed to stay on the property, but you must confine yourselves to one small corner, along the fence-line and are not permitted to enter the house nor even harvest from your once abundant gardens. And winter sets in…

I used to think that I could easily write an essay about sustainable food systems policy reform in British Columbia. I have spent the better part of the past 25 years working to foster such food systems and to ameliorate the regulatory and policy realms that impact them. But earlier this year I heard James Daschuk describe the policies of Prime Minister John A MacDonald and others. I cried as I listened to the impact of programs that sought to eliminate, through starvation and other more direct forms of violence, the Indigenous inhabitants from this place the settlers call Canada so that the newly "cleared" land would be available for use by immigrants. Then I read Arthur Manuel's brilliant book, Unsettling Canada.

I grew up with Okanagan Nation playmates. I have worked alongside Dawn Morrison and the Working Group on Indigenous Food Sovereignty for many years. And somehow, prompted by the work of Daschuk and Manuel, the penny has finally dropped for me and I truly understood that I, like all others who are not Indigenous to British Columbia, are squatters on Native land.

I actually have known this for some time but I was able to ignore the implications because I did not want to truly face the consequences. As a fourth generation Canadian of very mixed heritage, I did not know where I could go if I had to quit being a squatter. So I simply did not pursue that awareness to its logical conclusion.

I no longer have that choice.

My paternal great grandfather chose a piece of the wide-open prairie for his farm because he could see that the limestone rocks scattered on the surface were an indication of good soil. I wonder now, did he also see evidence of the first peoples on that land? Was he aware of the policies that had made that land available for him to select, land that had been home to Cree since time immemorial?

Thirty-six years later, my adolescent father moved his family from the prairie farm to the land of the Syilx, the Okanagan Valley. The Dirty Thirties had overwhelmed an adolescent tasked with running the large farm his ill father could not and with supporting his family of seven. The thriving tree fruit industry that had taken root in the territory of the Okanagan Nations seemed more promising.

But the other big difference between the prairie farm he left and the new farm in the Okanagan, was the existence of a treaty, however unethically reached, that covered the vast expanses of the prairies.

To this day, the vast majority of the region called British Columbia is unceded Indigenous territory. We, the settlers, did to the Indigenous peoples of this place, what the guests did to the happy homeowners in my opening paragraph.

Using the might and the legal systems of Canada and British Columbia, we have defined small reservations within which the Indigenous Peoples are supposed to remain and be able to meet their cultural, spiritual and material needs. And over all the land -- in or out of reservations -- we have imposed a foreign legal system and regulations. We have pushed the Indigenous People to the corner of what was once their "yard" and imposed a new set of customs and laws.

So now I find that I can no longer simply write about how food systems policy can be influenced by the food movement. Because I have become intensely uncomfortable with my status as a squatter on Indigenous Land.

I don't know what this new awareness will lead to. But I do know that my discomfort is a good first step and a state of being I should get used to. And I know that I must be willing to have many conversations with Indigenous people who will so honour me, as I seek to understand what it means to be in a relationship of justice and integrity with the people of the land I now squat upon.

I must be humble and listen.

 

Abra Brynne is the Director of Engagement and Policy at BC Food Systems Network, a project on the Tides Canada Shared Platform.

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