Food sovereignty in Western Canada

Tabitha Martens is passionate about food, but “food” is a term that means much more to Martens than a simple Webster’s definition might suggest.

“When I talk about food, I’m not just talking about fuel or sustenance,” Martens told the Gradzette one afternoon at Neechi Commons on north Main Street. “I’m talking about love, and life, and sharing, and being active in your food system. I’m talking about where it came from and how it was grown. I’m talking about the people whose hands touched it all along the way. I’m talking about who cooked it and who you shared it with. That’s what I mean when I talk about food.”

Martens is deep into her master’s research at the University of Manitoba, working out of the faculty of environment and geography under Stephane McLachlan. Her research focuses on Indigenous food sovereignty in Western Canada and attempts to shed light on and share information on food initiatives taking place in Western Canada amongst the communities involved.

“In my first phase I talked to local and regional experts who could speak to what Indigenous food sovereignty is,” Martens explained, “what it means, what it looks like, why it’s important.”

“[In] the second phase of my research I took a look at 20 of those projects.”

By asking regional experts and doing plenty of her own digging online, Martens identified 20 varied Indigenous communities across Western Canada, from Vancouver Island to northern Manitoba, who are all involved in interesting and unique food initiatives.

One of the most common food initiatives Martens found was community gardens.

“I could have done all community gardens,” she said. “I think they play this incredibly important role in bridging the gap between nothing and a start. They also play a hugely important role in youth involvement, which has become a really strong theme in my research. I don’t want to discount the community gardens, but at the same time I wanted to create a full picture of what Indigenous food sovereignty looks like.”

That “full picture” includes initiatives from community kitchens and freezers, from hunters and trappers assistance programs to regional traditional food conferences, from community gardens to culture camps. Culture camps, which a number of communities take part in annually or multiple times throughout the year, can take a number of forms. In very broad, general terms, culture camps tend to involve spending time on the land, learning from elders, and reconnecting with Indigenous culture.

“I don’t think when I started this that I understood how important [culture camps] were for food sovereignty,” Martens admits. “There are a lot of communities, through their own food sovereignty initiatives that are working on translating a lot of their education materials and food programs into traditional languages as a way of continuing the support for that and revitalizing both of those. Revitalizing their language and their food systems, and rightly so; the two are interconnected.”

Indeed, the very notion of what “food sovereignty” means to Martens and the communities she has been working with has shifted substantially since she began her research.

“When I started off I was like, ‘Who am I going to find that is food sovereign? Everyone depends on the store,’” Martens recalls. “Now, food sovereignty to me, and particularly Indigenous food sovereignty, is being actively engaged in your food system.”

“It’s a tricky term, food sovereignty,” admits Martens, “and I’m not sure everyone is ready to have that conversation.”

Finding it difficult to connect in some communities using what she herself describes as “researcher terms” like “food sovereignty,” Martens found more success by broadly discussing food initiatives.

“Once I dropped those terms,” she recalls, “people were like, ‘Oh! We have a green house and we have a hunting assistance program. We do trapper education, we have a goose camp, etc., etc.’”

Another common academic concept Martens found she had to abandon in pursuit of her research was that of a “linear trajectory.”

“That doesn’t work when you’re looking at Indigenous research,” Martens said, “and rightly so.”

Instead, Martens found that through the course of her research, she was constantly finding herself turned “every which way” by new and unforeseen influences arising from conversations with experts, community members and elders.

“All those outside influences [ . . . ] have been so rewarding,” Martens told the Gradzette. “Those are the moments I have been an observer and a participant. Those are the moments elders have shared with me. Those are the moments people invite me to participate in ceremony, or an event or workshop. Those are the special moments when a linear approach wouldn’t work.”

The result of following these influences where they may lead, rather than sticking to a rigid research plan, has been a more organic, holistic understanding of what Indigenous food sovereignty looks like, from a community based, Indigenous perspective.

“If I’m truly doing this on behalf of and for Indigenous communities,” she explains, “it should reflect their benefits and not my benefits as a researcher. So that’s something I’m trying to balance right now.”

Holding an undergraduate degree from the University of Winnipeg in environmental science, Martens has always been interested in food. With her current research, she was able to make a connection to her field of undergraduate study: botany.

“I’ve always loved plants,” explained Martens, “which probably informs my research now. I love learning about medicinal plants. I love learning about edible plants. So that’s something I maintained as an interest for years when I wasn’t in university.”

A mature student, Martens only recently returned to university. In the meantime, she worked – and continues to work – in Indigenous education.

“My day job in Indigenous education kept me involved in that, in that there was education around traditional knowledge and plants. I’d been involved in education around water and wildlife with FN communities. All this was kind of simmering and waiting for the right time for me to look at it.”

“My goal has always been to carry these stories with the utmost humility, honesty, and truth as I can,” Martens said. “I’m so blessed that in the end I will have talked to almost 50 people who have shared their stories with me. I want their stories to remain with them. I just want to tell [them] on their behalf and to look for themes and those outliers that may exist, to create a bigger picture.”

This article was originally published in the Gradzette.