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Food Insecurity

How Indigenous communities can establish food security in a changing climate

August 24, 2023
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(Sködt McNalty/CBC)

CBC News: One of the many effects of climate change is that it is leading to food insecurity in Indigenous communities across Canada

For example, bird species that traditionally disperse plant seeds to new sprouting locations are becoming less common due to changing weather patterns, while invasive species are threatening traditional resources that Indigenous communities obtain from the land. This has led to an over-reliance on expensive imported — and often processed — foods that exacerbate health issues in those communities.

However, one group says there’s a homegrown solution to this problem: Indigenous food sovereignty. 

It’s a way to “respond to our own needs for food the way our ancestors did for thousands of years,” said Dawn Morrison, founder and curator of research and relationships for the Working Group on Indigenous Food Sovereignty (WGIFS) in B.C. 

Morrison, who is 61 and of Secwépemc ancestry, was born a few years after her mom finished residential school. Morrison’s family was employed in the low-paying orchard industry as fruit-pickers, and during this time, Morrison experienced the effects of insecurity firsthand, as they struggled to put food on the table. (As a result of the family’s poverty, Morrison was almost taken in the Sixties Scoop.)

WGIFS is currently developing a toolkit to promote strategies and methods from a variety of Indigenous nations to help communities achieve self-sufficiency when it comes to food production. 

While more details will be revealed at a later date, part of that work is being done through the Indigenous Food Sovereignty Circle, a small garden on Vancouver Island that houses traditional foods and plants from a multitude of Indigenous cultures. Examples include rosehips, pumpkins and tomatoes, which are historically important to Coast Salish, Native-American and Aztec cultures, respectively. 

The garden is housed in Strathcona Park, a place Morrison says is culturally significant for several reasons. Long ago, it was a huge marshland that provided Coast Salish foods, medicines and fish-bearing streams. Today, it’s situated beside an industrial hub for food distribution.

“It’s probably the only area in all of the province that’s electrically wired to house this many food distributors,” Morrison told What on Earth host Laura Lynch. “So, about 40 to 60 per cent of all the food that goes in and gets transported across B.C. comes through this corridor on Malkin Avenue.”

The juxtaposition is striking considering that transportation accounts for 19 per cent of food system emissions in Canada; locally grown food reduces those emissions significantly. It’s one of the main benefits that Indigenous food sovereignty provides in the fight against climate change. 

Another benefit is its ability to adapt to extreme weather. One method Morrison and her group have implemented in the Indigenous Food Sovereignty Circle is the chinampa, or “floating gardens.” It’s an ancient Aztec agricultural system where areas of fertile soil are built up into mounds either over large bodies of water or on flood-prone areas, with deep canals on the perimeter that collect water. 

The system is drought-resistant as it uses less water than traditional irrigation. It’s also flood-resistant, as additional water collects in the canals and is only absorbed by the plants when needed.

“This is also in the Amazon rainforest,” Morrison said. “There are books written on how the Indigenous peoples built up soil in the river systems where it was just all flooded. They built up mounds of soil like this and were able to grow food.”

The ability to utilize Indigenous climate adaptation strategies from around the world is more than just a passion project for Morrison — it’s a means of moving away from colonial approaches to food security and unpacking years of intergenerational trauma.

“Sometimes I get really tired,” Morrison admitted. But she calls the Indigenous Sovereignty Circle a form of healing. “This is like taking back space for Indigenous foods and community.”

Some of Morrison’s fondest memories occurred in a garden, where she says her mother was happiest. It’s one of the reasons Morrison turned to studying horticulture and ethnobotany.

“I just always remembered how peaceful it felt to be with the plants and to be with my mom and Mother Earth,” Morrison said. “This is the depth and the beauty of what has transformed a lot of that trauma, and what happens when we come to the garden here and do land-based learning. It will always be what brings the people together.”

— Dannielle Piper

Old issues of What on Earth? are here. The CBC News climate page is here. 

Check out our radio show and podcast. It’s been a long summer of wildfires and Canada is struggling to keep up. This week, we’ll hear from a former firefighter turned professor who says we will need more people on the job and an approach that helps prevent, not just combat, the flames. What On Earth airs on Sundays at 11 a.m. ET, 11:30 a.m. in Newfoundland and Labrador. Subscribe on your favourite podcast app or hear it on demand at CBC Listen.

Watch the CBC video series Planet Wonder featuring our colleague Johanna Wagstaffe here.