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Bill S-227, An Act to establish Food Day in Canada - Third Reading

Food as reconciliation.

Harry S. Truman said,

“In the long view, no nation is any healthier than its children or more prosperous than its farmers . . . .”

Honourable senators, I rise today in support of Bill S-227, which seeks to establish food day in Canada.

I would like to thank Senator Black for his continued and committed advocacy toward the land, soil safety and the agriculture community on Turtle Island.

Farming has always been and continues to be a key part in the solution toward producing nutritious and free-range food for Canadians. My interest in farming has a personal connection. My mentor and surrogate father, Dr. Robert Glenn, was a farmer around the Russell area in the Interlake region of Manitoba.

One day, when he was in his late seventies, he was talking to me about his farm while we were in the dental clinic. I asked him:

Dr. Glenn, why do you continue to do this hard work that starts at four or five in the morning and continues late into the night without so much as a guaranteed income when the season is over?

He answered, “It’s in the blood, my girl.” At that moment, my profound respect for farmers and the hard, tireless — and many times unappreciated and thankless — work that they do was born.

Farming, as I understand it now, is land-based education. Like Indigenous knowledge, there is knowledge and wisdom garnered in this setting that you will never learn from a textbook while sitting in a classroom.

Honourable senators, it is a little-known fact that one of the most significant contributions that America’s Indigenous peoples have made is in agricultural farming. Many foods, such as chocolate, potatoes, corn and tomatoes, are native to the Americas, and were initially cultivated or domesticated by Indigenous farmers.

The three sisters — corn, beans and squash — were typically grown together by Indigenous farmers. Going back to the earliest days of first contact, settlers frequently relied on Indigenous people’s knowledge of food and the land to survive in this foreign terrain.

As is stated in The Canadian Encyclopedia’s submission on First Nations, it says, in part, that during the 1600s Indigenous technology and knowledge of hunting, trapping, guiding, food and disease proved crucial to the survival of Europeans and early colonial economy and society.

Without the sharing of their knowledge and bounty, including Indigenous food preparation techniques such as harvesting wild rice in the fall and maple syrup in the spring, Europeans would not have survived, let alone thrived.

Dr. Diana Bizecki Robson at the Manitoba Museum, in her book A Brief History of Indigenous Agriculture, stated:

After Europeans arrived in the Americas, crops from the “Old World” (e.g. wheat, barley, oats) were brought here while American crop plants were transported to Africa, Asia and Europe; this process was known as the Columbian Exchange.

However, colleagues, it should be acknowledged that despite their contributions in this field, Indigenous peoples have a complicated and misunderstood history regarding farming in Canada.

In the book entitled, Lost Harvests, Prairie Indian Reserve Farmers and Government Policy, well-known author Sarah Carter stated:

The Indian farmer has been accorded an insignificant role in Canadian prairie history. Although the Plains Indians were among the earliest and largest of groups to attempt farming west of the Red River Settlement, immigrants from Europe and the older provinces of Canada are routinely credited with the pioneering efforts to farm the prairies. Not only were the Indians excluded from histories of the sodbusters, but they were not even recognized as having the capability to farm.

She continues:

. . . the Plains Cree were anxious to acquire the skills and tools that would allow them to farm but that eventually they gave up agriculture because of restrictive government regulations including the permit system, the subdivision of reserves, and the ban on the use of machinery.

Colleagues, the reason Indigenous farmers were not as successful as their settler counterparts was, as Sarah Carter states:

. . . not that the Indians’ culture limited their capacity for farming, but that along with environmental setbacks, Indian farmers were subject to regulations that denied them the technological and financial opportunities to form a strong agricultural base.

The author frames this issue concisely when she writes:

The prevailing view that the Indians of western Canada failed to adapt to agriculture because of their cultural traditions is in need of revision . . . .

Those who stress that the fundamental problem was that Indians were culturally or temperamentally resistant to becoming farmers have ignored or downplayed economic, legal, social, and climatic factors. Reserve agriculturalists were subject to the same adversities and misfortunes as their white neighbours were, but they were also subject to government policies that tended to aggravate rather than ameliorate a situation that was dismal for all farmers.

Honourable senators, I have given a very brief history on food and agriculture as it relates to Indigenous peoples. This includes their willingness to share their food production insights and provide sustenance to earlier settlers, Indigenous people’s capability, ingenuity and willingness to thrive in the farming arena, and the many barriers that existed beginning in those early days, which were insurmountable forces working against Indigenous success in this realm.

Colleagues, I would now like to touch on the issue of food security and its reliance on a healthy environment and biodiversity.

In the book Saving Farmland: The Fight for Real Food, the author quotes Vandana Shiva when she describes the rights of nature:

The Earth’s living systems and human communities face multiple crises of climate change, mass species extinction, rampant deforestation, desertification, collapse of fisheries, toxic contamination with tragic consequences for all life. Under the current system of law, Nature is considered an object, a property, giving the property owner the right to destroy ecosystems for financial gain. The Rights of Nature legal doctrine recognizes that ecosystems and plant and animal species cannot simply be objects of property but entities that have the inherent right to exist. People, communities and authorities have the responsibility to guarantee those rights on behalf of Nature. These laws are consistent with indigenous people’s concepts of natural law and original instructions as well as the understanding that humans are a part of Nature and only one strand in the web of life.

Colleagues, it is understood and accepted now that the health of our surrounding natural environment has direct and profound impacts on our own health. The loss of diversity, whether culturally, biologically or environmentally that continues to occur in Canada, has been detrimental to our food supply and production.

When these fundamental supply chains become compromised, we suffer a severance in our connection to the land as well as to the animals that are integral to a healthy and thriving biodiversity.

It should also be noted that food security can often take different forms for different segments of our population. Considering the traditional, land-based lifestyle that many Indigenous peoples still live and strive to uphold, it will come as no surprise that Indigenous peoples face a greater threat of food insecurity. This is explained in an article entitled: The History of Food in Canada Is the History of Colonialism from the online publication The Walrus, which states:

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.

Colleagues, the reality and importance of the seal is but one example to show the intricacies and the intersectionality that biodiversity has on the overall well-being of countless Indigenous peoples across Canada.

Senators, many Canadians feel that our food systems are secure so long as the grocery stores are full, often showing indifference as to where and how these stores come by their product. However, it is critical that we ask ourselves: What is our relationship with food? It is to our benefit that we question things such as how has the wheat been grown or the meat been raised? Is it organic or free-range? Is it local? Is there genetic engineering involved?

To best support our local businesses and especially our local farmers, it is important to ask such questions. Supporting and understanding local businesses helps us to appreciate and respect that nutritious food is not to be taken for granted. It is the result of the marriage between a healthy biodiversity and those individuals who nurture and cultivate it.

Colleagues, the preamble to Bill S-227 states:

. . . the people of Canada will benefit from a food day in Canada to celebrate local food as one of the most elemental characteristics of all of the cultures that populate this nation . . . .

This is an important feature of this bill. Celebrating with and through food is an inherent act shared by First Nations and other Canadians. We often do this through feasts, which have always been a time of gathering, celebrating, sharing, laughter and joy.

With food at its heart, people come together to share stories, to listen, to learn and to heal. In this way, the celebration of food contributes to building relationships and bridging differences. It also underscores the importance of working together, whether it is harvesting, hunting or gathering. Food is always a conduit to find time to bring us together and to share our humanness.

Honourable senators, the importance of food is obvious, but the concept of celebrating and commemorating its past, present and future in Canada is a valuable initiative. I want to acknowledge all farmers across Canada for the massive undertaking of their work, all small local businesses across the country who make available local produce, goods and food and all chefs across the country, whether they are in our homes or restaurants for the part they play in resourcing local foods.

In closing, colleagues, I would like to quote Frances Moore Lappé when she wrote:

The point of commons care is to prevent harm before it occurs. And means learning to “think like an eco-system” . . . .

We come to see natural treasures no longer as merely divisible property but as gifts protected by boundaries we create and honor, knowing that all life depends on their integrity.

Kinanâskomitin. Thank you.

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