Indigenous food sovereignty is key to resilient farms, gardens and communitie

This story is part of Nourish, a series about how First Nations are fuelling their people with sustainably harvested, healthy, and culturally safe foods amid a changing climate

When Jacob Beaton bought a small farm in 2018 in Kitwanga, B.C., First Nations guests began pouring in.

Beaton, who is from Gitxaała Nation and farms on Gitxsan territory, says locals told him that 60 or 70 years ago, there were hundreds of acres of Gitxsan farms and ranches around where his farm stands today.

“It was really powerful because everybody who came had these memories of previous generations of Indigenous families farming,” Beaton says.

But government policies targeted Indigenous foods.

“There were amendments to the Indian Act, starting in the late 1800s and then going through to the 1950s, to completely destroy Indigenous food production because Indigenous people were powerful with food,” he says.

The act outlawed First Nations people from owning property off reserve, or selling food and buying supplies for food production without permits from the government. At the same time, the government restricted access to traditional foods. These policies caused disproportionate food insecurity that continues today.

Beaton is among a growing network of people who are taking food cultivation into their own hands to address immediate hunger and improve access to local and ancestral foods.

An aerial view of Tea Creek farm
Tea Creek is an Indigenous-led and culturally safe place for people to learn about food sovereignty, explains Jacob Beaton. They offer a range of training from how to grow food, to carpentry and administration. Photo: Marty Clemens

“We need to be able to make up our own mind about our own food production,” Beaton says, adding that it’s important to differentiate between food security and food sovereignty.

“It’s a very scary thing to me when I hear people swapping food security with food sovereignty, just because food sovereignty sounds sexier. They’re not the same thing,” he says.

Food security can be solved with money, he explains — food sovereignty comes down to self-determination.

Beaton’s Tea Creek farm offers training that is focused on food sovereignty. Beyond growing food, they also teach carpentry, administration, professional cooking, mechanics, marketing — all interconnected skills needed for a community to launch its own food production, and then use those skills to propel forward on reclaiming food sovereignty.

Indigenous communities face myriad challenges rebuilding food sovereignty, including climate change, lack of funding and jurisdictional issues. But, Beaton says, they also hold solutions — not only for their own peoples, but for food production for the wider public and biodiversity loss around the world.

Here are the solutions community leaders see to rebuild self-sufficiency around food.

Building community connections

Plenty of people are doing innovative food projects in their communities, but they don’t always have the time to share the work they’re doing, according to ​’Cúagilákv, Jess H̓áust̓i, a Haíłzaqv (Heiltsuk) lands-based educator and writer. H̓áust̓i says building community connections is key, so people can partner up and learn from each other.

“It’s always so hard when you want to play matchmaker and you’re like, ‘Okay, this community over here is struggling with this issue, and this other community over here solved it.’ I want to get them talking. Or, ‘This community is doing such cool things and nobody knows about it, and it deserves so much more attention,’ ” H̓áust̓i says.

Food sovereignty is a passion for H̓áust̓i. When the COVID-19 began, grocery store deliveries drastically slowed down as the whole economy felt the crunch, highlighting just how dependent their community was on non-local foods delivered by freight.

Jess Housty Bella Bella Heiltsuk
Jess H̓áust̓i, executive director of Qqs (Eyes) Projects Society, is passionate about food sovereignty. “I want my community to have enough abundance that they’re inviting people to their table,” they say. Photo: Louise Whitehouse / The Narwhal

With the pandemic, H̓áust̓i ramped up their efforts addressing food insecurity in Bella Bella, including launching the Granny Gardens initiative, which began by delivering garden boxes and seeds for people in isolation along with online workshops.

They’ve made great gains through the Qqs (Eyes) Projects Society, a Heiltsuk non-profit focused on culture and stewardship, where H̓áust̓i is executive director. They have a zero-barrier food bank, accessed by 300 out of 400 homes in the community, that offers food and household and hygiene products. They aim to deliver ancestral foods every other month, like halibut, prawns and salmon.

But H̓áust̓i sees far more work has to be done to reach food sovereignty.

“We’re still in a really precarious position,” they say. “There’s still a very high proportion of cheap, processed foods that are not particularly healthy.”

H̓áust̓i wants to help Indigenous communities support each other, versus a “white saviour” individual or organization swooping in to help a community with food insecurity. As part of that goal, H̓áust̓i launched Coastal Foodways to enhance networking and support in their region. The newly formed organization has hosted workshops and organized financial support for a number of “food champions” on the central coast — people working on building food resiliency in their communities. They say food sovereignty has to be regional in scale.

“Our ancestors took care of food security too. They did that through patching and maintaining trade relationships and moving resources across communities,” H̓áust̓i says.

“We’re not going to solve food security in Bella Bella alone.”

More resources and capacity

To build these projects and this community connectivity, communities need capacity.

“You can put in a commercial greenhouse, you can put in a farm but if you don’t have a community of people who are interested and excited and ready to champion that work … it can be really hard to get traction in community,” H̓áust̓i says.

They attribute a lot of Qqs (Eyes) Project Society’s success to the fact they started in a small and decentralized way, slowly building up food champions in the community. They say the fact Qqs is an independent non-profit helps — band councils are juggling so many pieces of governance, there may not be room to prioritize improving food systems.

Qqs is able to raise their own money, and run their own programs with “a really clear mandate around food,” H̓áust̓i says.

“That wouldn’t work everywhere, not every community can just snap their fingers and manifest a charitable organization,” they explain. “At the end of the day, the important thing is that it has to be on somebody’s desk as the primary work they’re doing, and they need to be broadly supported in the community to do that work well.”

Fred Fortier, who runs Uncle Freddie’s Hothouse and Nursery in Chu Chua, B.C., agrees. He says First Nations governments need a designated food sovereignty co-ordinator to help get local food production and processing off the ground.

“If there’s no food sovereignty co-ordinator, it doesn’t get done,” he previously told The Narwhal.

“That’s our huge, huge challenge is to provide that capacity … Without the capacity, we rely on other people.”

Fred Fortier eats strawberries he grew at the commercial garden and hot house he runs on Secwepemc territory outside Little Fort, B.C.
Fred Fortier eats strawberries he grew at the commercial garden and hot house he runs on Secwepemc territory outside Little Fort, B.C. Photo: Jesse Winter / The Narwhal

Building capacity requires long-term funding, ideally without too many bureaucratic hurdles. H̓áust̓i says there’s more food security funding available than there has been in the past — but a lot of it remains inaccessible for small communities.

Some funders are “not interested in making grants at the scale of a community of 400 people or 1,000 people … they’re looking for large, high-impact grants,” they say.

Beaton says it’s “nearly impossible” for Tea Creek to get financing. “We exist on the edge of a knife right now because what we’re doing is so fresh and new, funders don’t know what to do with us,” he says.

He points out Indigenous Peoples are the fastest growing population in Canada, and the fastest growing population in the agriculture sector: since 1996, while the total number of operators in the agricultural sector has fallen by 30 per cent, the number of Indigenous operators has increased by 56 per cent. Many farmers in Canada are set to retire in coming years, and Beaton believes Indigenous growers can help fill that important role, if they’re enabled to do — partly with less barriers to accessing funding and loans.

“All of the Indigenous farmers that I know, none of them are able to do it as a full-time job because there’s so many barriers by Indian Act bullshit and systemic racism. It’s not lack of skill. It’s not lack of knowledge. It’s not lack of work effort, or anything like that. It’s just systemic racism that keeps us bottled up and out of this economy,” he says.

Beaton is grateful for provincial funding that has kept Tea Creek Farm going. In 2021, they received funding to teach roughly 30 students, and nearly 1,000 extra people showed up, he says, and 2022 was about the same. This year, they received funding for 150 students.

“It’s growing because it works,” he says.

In July, the province announced a $30-million Indigenous food sovereignty program to support “more equitable participation in B.C.’s agriculture economy” and address disproportionate food insecurity within Indigenous communities.

Prioritizing Indigenous stewardship and adaptations to climate change

Beaton warns “climate disaster is destroying our traditional food sources really quickly” and food sovereignty plans have to be climate adaptable.

“Natural resource companies are just continuing to pillage the land,” he says. “On top of that, you have climate disaster. We’re in year three or four of severe droughts that you normally never used to have up here.”

Evidence shows, Beaton points out, Indigenous Peoples hold the solutions to biodiversity loss. Making up only five per cent of the world’s population — and often persecuted by colonial states and displaced from their lands — Indigenous Peoples steward 80 per cent of the world’s remaining biodiversity. A 2016 study looking at the Lutsel K’e Ni Hat’ni Dene and the Dehcho K’ehodi guardians programs in the Northwest Territories found that every dollar invested generated $2.50 in social, cultural, economic and environmental value.

“It is proven that if you put land in the control of Indigenous people, Indigenous people will preserve biodiversity, capture carbon and fight climate change,” he says.

“If we can take care of our ecosystems, we have food.”

Jacob Beaton stands as food is harvested at Tea Creek farm
Food security and food sovereignty aren’t the same thing, explains Jacob Beaton. One can be solved with money, the other comes down to self-determination. Photo: Marty Clemens

More frequent climate disasters, like wildfires burning food stores, have driven home the importance of dedicating funds to building resilient food systems. Communities are constantly experimenting with what will grow in their climate, and keeping a long-range view on what may grow there — or not — in a hotter future.

This experimentation can bring joy and surprises. H̓áust̓i was sure a local gardener would be disappointed when they tried to grow corn in the wet, cold climate of Bella Bella — but they had a successful harvest. Gardeners, including Fortier, are using regenerative practices that build fertile and rich topsoil, while industrial agriculture can erode topsoil faster than it can be replenished.

Tyrone McNeil, Stó:lō Tribal Council president and Tribal Chief and chair of the Emergency Planning Secretariat, says preparing food systems for climate change has to be a “whole–of-society approach,” as outlined in a framework for disaster risk reduction from the United Nations (which the province has endorsed). Looking back to B.C.’s catastrophic floods in 2021, McNeil says agriculture can partly be better prepared for extreme events by “prioritizing regional critical infrastructure” like highways, railways, telecommunications and essential services to better ensure the movement of food and animals in a disaster. McNeil pointed out how dairy producers had to dump milk after being stranded by the 2021 floods.

“We certainly don’t want to throw away millions of litres of milk like we did after the November 2021 event,” he says.

With wild salmon stocks plummeting, another big change McNeil would support is land-based coho farming, in order to take the pressure off of wild salmon while also protecting them from marine fish farm pollution.

“We have a right to protect our land and resources,” McNeil says. “That’s a component of food sovereignty.”

Recognizing First Nations jurisdiction

McNeil emphasizes food sovereignty “starts with the recognition of First Nations rights in British Columbia.”

“Food sovereignty would give me the authority to tell the Ministry of Forests that you can no longer broadcast aerial spraying of Roundup because it kills a lot of things that we have value in,” he says, referencing the common herbicide that contains glyphosate — a chemical that destroys traditional food and medicine plants and may be carcinogenic to humans.

Food sovereignty means pushing back on legislation and practices that don’t respect Indigenous Rights and Title, he says.

“You can’t put food sovereignty on the table without putting jurisdiction and authority on the table,” McNeil says, adding Canada is “a ways away” from that. Even where Indigenous Rights are recognized in theory, that doesn’t mean they’re upheld.

Tyrone McNeil posed next to water
For Tyrone McNeil, Stó:lō Tribal Council president and Tribal Chief and chair of the Emergency Planning Secretariat, an important step for food sovereignty is handing over jurisdiction to First Nations. Photo: Jesse Winter / The Narwhal

Chief Roland Willson of West Moberly First Nations explains the government is in a “perpetual state of infringement” with Treaty 8, which his nation is a signatory to, because caribou have plummeted due to industrialization. First Nations in northeastern B.C. received assurances the treaty meant their ways of life wouldn’t be interfered with, but today, Klinse-Za caribou are listed under the Species At Risk Act, and West Moberly can’t harvest them for food due to conservation concerns.

“When they find themselves in infringement, they’re supposed to do whatever they can to get out of that,” Willson says.

In 2020, the West Moberly and Saulteau First Nations signed two caribou conservation agreements with B.C. and Canada. Willson pointed to the 2021 Yahey vs. British Columbia decision, which recognized Blueberry River First Nations’ rights under Treaty 8 had been infringed due to the cumulative impacts of development on the territory. But despite agreements, court wins and enshrined rights — the province hasn’t changed how they’re doing things, Moberly argues.

“They’re still issuing mining permits in areas that are supposed to be protected for caribou habitat,” he says. “They’re making decisions and then come in and talk to us afterwards.”

Exercising sovereignty over the land, through stewardship and harvesting, connects people to the land — another crucial component of food sovereignty.

In the capitalist food system, there’s “disconnect between consumers and producers,” McNeil says. But the more we grow community gardens, revitalize canneries that once dotted the coast, increase people’s skills in hunting and farming and build community freezers and cellars, the more people are connected with their food.

It’s integral to revitalize Traditional Knowledge transfer that was disrupted by residential schools, Beaton says.

“Even after all the Indian Act laws, nations were still food sovereign,” he says. “Residential schools were the straw that finally broke that.”

In his work at Tea Creek, and in H̓áust̓i’s work with Qqs society, Elders connect with youth learning skills and knowledge around foods, medicines and culture. H̓áust̓i is excited about connecting people with traditional foods that haven’t been widely eaten in a generation or two, like plantains and kelp.

For H̓áust̓i, a sense of joy is important to help people feel welcome and excited to participate in food initiatives.

“Framing these programs through love, abundance and generosity really sets a different mindset for folks than if you’re constantly talking about the dangers of food insecurity, to scare people into participating,” they say.

A group of people at Tea Creek farm
Tea Creek is a gathering place for community members to learn from one another through land-based programs. Photo: Marty Clemens

The more people come in, the closer they get to their food sovereign visions. H̓áust̓i has their own picture of the future.

“I want my community to have enough abundance that they’re inviting people to their table,” they say. “And they’re rekindling or strengthening relationships with loved ones and other communities around the exchange of food.”

In this future, people can freely access and choose locally grown foods, ethically imported foods and ancestral foods that “make us feel more connected to our cultural identity,” H̓áust̓i says.

“And I think it’s possible. And I really want to help make that happen.”

Nourish is made possible with support from the Real Estate Foundation of BC. As per The Narwhal’s editorial independence policy, no foundation or outside organization has editorial input into our stories.