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Turning Food into a Weapon in the Battle against Colonialism

Meet the people working to make Indigenous food security a key element in combating racism.

Missy Johnson 12 Jun

Missy Johnson is an intern with The Tyee as a part of the Journalists for Human Rights Emerging Indigenous Reporter program. She is a recent graduate of the Langara College journalism program.

Even before the pandemic highlighted broad issues of food insecurity, Indigenous people across Canada were working on ways to restore food sovereignty and traditional practices.

And even before the outcry over the murder of George Floyd, they had called out the racism inherent in our current food supply system.

Battling colonialism can start with the food we eat.

Dawn Morrison, the founder, chair and co-ordinator of the Working Group on Indigenous Food Sovereignty, said she hopes the pandemic will lead more people to question the way we gather and grow our food.

“Now with the economic fallout of COVID and the climate crisis, we’re really needing to look at some innovative solutions and bring the oldest living memory of what it means to live sustainably on the land and bring that into this new present-day reality,” said Morrison, a member of the Secwepemc Nation and horticulturalist who has been working with Elders and traditional hunters, fishers and harvesters for 20 years.

Morrison describes Indigenous food sovereignty as “the ability of Indigenous peoples to respond to our own needs for food, for adequate amounts of healthy food, the way we have for thousands of years.”

Achieving it calls for broad changes, she says. “We have to actually be participating on a day-to-day basis in Indigenous food-related activities such as hunting, fishing, farming, gathering, cooking, sharing and trading.”

Indigenous food sovereignty is also about self-determination, Morrison says.

“We want to be free from the corporate control of the global food system, we want to be free from colonial policies that have disappeared us, and we do self-determination in the web of relationships within our tribal networks or intertribal networks.”

And it’s about overthrowing colonialism, she says, eliminating the policies and governance issues that block Indigenous people from obtaining for their own way.

“Food sovereignty is really important to address the underlying needs or reasons why people don’t have enough food in the first place,” she says.

A focus on local communities

Tabitha Robin is a Swampy Cree researcher, writer and food activist at the University of Manitoba who’s been studying and practicing Indigenous food sovereignty for about a decade.

She says it’s crucial for people to understand that Indigenous food sovereignty is inherently local.

“It works to meet the cultural needs and specificities of nations across Canada,” she said. “So it’s important that we recognize that food sovereignty in northern B.C. does not look the same as Southern Ontario.”

And it’s not just about growing and gathering food, adds Robin.

Robin points to Tiny House Warriors as an admirable example of campaigners for Indigenous food sovereignty because they’re willing to fight to protect their traditional territory from industrial development.

“It’s not always about protecting the food as much as it’s about protecting the land,” Robin said. “Because even if the land wasn’t directly producing food, it still contains soil and microbes, and all the little creatures that live and make that happen, the bacteria, the fungi, water and air.

“They’re protecting land for future generations. So that is inherently Indigenous food sovereignty. They’ve gone at the source of the food and they’ve gone directly to the land.”

Pushing for policy change, building alliances

Morrison says part of her work with the Working Group on Indigenous Food Sovereignty is aimed at “decolonizing food systems, work with various government agencies, various non-profit organizations and civil society, organizations, networks, researchers, and tribal and non-tribal governments.”

That takes many forms. The working group, for example, aims to “mobilize knowledge and networks to better understand the important role that Indigenous knowledge plays in wild salmon conservation and their habitat,” she said. “Because we’re seeing the numbers of wild salmon dwindle.”

They also have an Indigenous food and freedom school, which she says is their most recent project.

“It really is kind of bringing together all of the analysis and we’re developing a toolkit,” Morrison says. “We’re engaging cohorts of Indigenous experts from different areas of focus to help inform the developing of this toolkit through a living reality, through actually participating in Indigenous food sovereignty.”

The goal is also to increase understanding so people who have come together to do the work “will have the tools at the end of the project to go out and become leaders in their own rights and represent our work.”

Wilson Mendes, media director for the Working Group on Indigenous Food Sovereignty, says Indigenous food sovereignty can be a solution to racism-based food insecurity.

“I think Indigenous food sovereignty is a solution to this problem to dismantle the racial inequalities within the food systems,” he said.

Mendes, who is an Indigenous Afro-Brazilian community planner, is a PhD candidate at the University of British Columbia, where he is focusing on Indigenous food sovereignty and urban Indigenous youth.

“I think Indigenous knowledge and traditions has the answers to all of the ecological problems, let alone the social ones,” he said.

Teacher Virginia Morgan helps tie cedar bark students have pulled from trees that will be dried and used to weave baskets and headbands and make cedar roses.

Building on the next generation

Virginia Morgan is an artist and an Indigenous culture teacher at Hazelton Secondary School of Gitxsan and Kwakwaka’wakw descent. Morgan, who grew up in Alert Bay just off Vancouver Island’s east coast, told The Tyee she remembers going harvesting on Cormorant Island with her family when she was a child.*

A lifestyle based on Indigenous food sovereignty is all she’s ever known, she says.

“In my early years I was always around food from the land and sea,” she said. “My mom, grandmother and aunties took us out to pick salal berries, blackberries, salmon berries, huckleberries and raspberries in their season, then came the jam-making.”

Morgan didn’t have any brothers, so at the age of 13 her father took her hunting for the first time.

“We camped out in a tent, walked the mountain, sat and ate lunch by a creek, and walked back to the camp,” she said. “We hunted bear and deer.”

Morgan says she learned to garden with her late husband, Vernon Stephens, “an amazing gardener.”

She started her class by teaching beadwork, how to harvest medicines and make regalia. But after a few years she got approval from the school to build a smokehouse. As well as teaching students how to cook and jar fish, she could show them how to smoke it, too. Shortly after, the smokehouse she requested a garden, which was also approved.

“We have been growing potatoes, carrots, pumpkins, onions, garlic and beets for several years now,” she said.

Once a month they use what they grow in the garden to make soup in the classroom to feed the students. Poverty is an issue in Hazelton.

After the success of the garden, a colleague asked her what was next, and it was obvious to her — it was time to take the students out to teach them how to hunt.

“It is not just about hunting out there, we give them responsibilities,” she says. “It is their responsibility to keep their tent and gear clean and organized, they take turns washing dishes and cooking, as well as chop wood for the wood stoves, they help set up camp and take camp down.”

“When we get back to school, they also help set tents back up to dry and while out on the land they are learning about traditional protocols. We also sit around the fire each evening to check in. This is when the best stories come out.”

A couple of years ago Morgan decided to start bringing girls on the trips too.

“Because while we’re out there, we’re talking about protocols for girls and their responsibilities, being young women coming into womanhood,” she said. “We pick medicines, we gather cedar, so it’s a lot of the things that the girls would have done a long time ago with their moms and grandmas.”

Morgan estimates that 90 per cent of Hazelton Secondary School’s students are Indigenous. Her program, which she calls Back to the Land, strengthens their Indigenous identity and gives them confidence outside of the classroom, she says.

“When I’m talking to parents and they start talking about the different changes that they see in their kids and that they start even having that same open conversation at home, they’re not so afraid anymore to talk about those things that are important to them.”

Teacher Virginia Morgan takes Hazelton students out to hunt and teaches them to process the meat.

The changes extend into families.

“A few of the boys were invited by their father or grandfather to go out hunting following our trips,” Morgan says. “They saw that the boys were excited about being out on the land.”

And into other areas of the students’ lives.

“One of the boys was very shy, to the point of not speaking much in any of his classes. We had taken him on several of our trips. He became more confident in himself,” she says. “At school, in the office area, he would stop and chat with the secretaries. He began to joke more. So it has made a difference in the way they carry themselves at school, home, and in the communities.”

“They come back with a different kind of pride, a different kind of outlook and it doesn’t happen just the once, that happens over time,” Morgan says. “When we take students out, we usually take them five or six different times because we feel like what we’re doing is mentoring them as well, it’s not just taking them out hunting once.”

Morgan says she does this because it’s her whole life and has always been the way she lives.

“I know that, especially in this area where there aren’t a lot of jobs, that it could fill a really big void. As far as, you know, not just the young people but just the community coming together and being able to go out on the land and harvest and it’s all year round. It’s not just the hunting, it’s the gardening, medicine gathering. It’s everything.”

Morgan says another important aspect of her class is the focus on nutrition.

“We kind of talk about the overall plants, the medicines, what we gather from the garden, how to cook them so… we’re not taking nutrition out of the vegetables, as well as the meat,” she said. “The foods that we eat today are so processed.”

Morgan has been working on her program for more than 20 years and says she plans to retire soon — but not before she mentors other teachers at the school.

“I don’t want to leave the school and have everything kind of fall apart,” she says.

Food security and the capitalist economy

Morrison says Morgan’s program is beneficial and education is an important tool in bringing broader change to Indigenous people’s lives.

“One of the reasons that Indigenous families are food insecure is because parents are forced to participate in the capitalist wage economy,” she said. “Parents, when they’re working eight hours a day, they have less time to spend teaching the children the traditional knowledge, values and wisdom so schools can be helpful that way.”

But she says education isn’t the only solution and we must dismantle an inherently racist system to see real lasting change in food security.

Since COVID-19 has meant a huge loss of employment, people are in need. In March, the B.C. government announced that $3 million would be distributed to food banks and similar organizations across the province.

Morrison said food banks fill a need in the short term, “but we need that food sovereignty strategy to look at the underlying issues.”

“For Indigenous people, food banks are not an adequate strategy to address our needs and our concerns,” she said. “Especially for a lot of the northern and remote areas, and the most poverty stricken Third World conditions that many Indigenous people in Canada still live within.”

Morrison says we need to address the fact that many of these areas lack clean drinking water and the infrastructure needed to grow their own food.

That extends to housing. “We know we can't achieve food sovereignty without adequate housing,” she says.

The University of Manitoba’s Robin hopes people will realize that food banks aren’t helpful for Indigenous communities and long-term food solutions are needed.

“Part of me hopes that if more people understood that food banks are not working for feeding most Indigenous communities that they would write to their government to say, ‘Hey, what’s going on with that? And how can we talk about how we can support Indigenous food sovereignty initiatives?’”

Morrison said education and funding for food security efforts are needed, but it’s most important to dismantle the racist system in order to encourage Indigenous food sovereignty.

“What’s needed in Indigenous communities is for the governments… to actually allocate adequate amounts of funding for Indigenous peoples to plan and govern for and by ourselves, and funding earmarked for infrastructure to grow and prepare food and water,” she said.

Canadian governments are focused on agribusiness and food exports, “not food for the people,” she adds.

“We need to dismantle the system that favours that corporate consolidation of land and water and infrastructure for corporate large-scale industrial agriculture as opposed to food and infrastructure for local people,” she said.

Morrison says food insecurity is just one aspect of systemic injustice.

“The policies, the planning, the governance that has been instituted, it’s actually a racist system,” she said. “The numbers clearly show the disparity and how Indigenous peoples are over-represented in the poverty stricken, food insecure neighbourhoods.”

Morrison hopes that the murder of George Floyd and the conversation around racism it has sparked will lead to a change in the food system, which she says is also based on racism.

Robin agrees that along with funding, education and protecting the land, addressing racism is essential to really bring change to the food system.

“In order for us to have Indigenous food sovereignty we need to be able to eliminate racism in our health-care system, in our food-care system, in our justice system, in our child welfare system, every single thing is connected.”

Robin acknowledges she hasn’t seen too much change at the legislative level to bring a more sustainable, just food system. But she sees resurgence on the ground and is still hopeful.

“Within our culture, I see Indigenous youth as ruling the world,” she said. “I have a lot of admiration for this new activism that is emerging in a lot of youth.”

*Story updated on June 22 at 10:30 a.m. to include additional information about Indigenous culture teacher Virginia Morgan.  [Tyee]

Read more: Indigenous, Food

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