By Gary Kenny
As their recent public testimonials reveal, Ontario’s various non-governmental farm organizations are tilling some new, and reconciliatory, ground.
On September 30th, the Ontario Federation of Farmers (OFA), National Farmers-Union-Ontario (NFU-O), the Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario (EFAO) and other Ontario-based farm groups publicly stated their commitment to reconciliation with Indigenous peoples by issuing statements of solidarity on Canada’s first National Day of Truth and Reconciliation.
In a statement made jointly with 14 other farm associations, including the Beef Farmers of Ontario, the Ontario Sheep Farmers and the Egg Farmers of Ontario, the OFA stated, “Collectively, we recognize the importance of truth and reconciliation and acknowledge that there is much more for us to know and understand.”
The Government of Canada made the statutory holiday official in June calling it a “public commemoration of the tragic and painful history and impacts of residential schools.”
The newly-minted national day delivers on one of the 94 calls to action contained in the 2015 final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) into the history and impacts of the former Indian residential school system.
Call to action #80 requested the federal government, in collaboration with Aboriginal peoples, to establish “a statutory holiday to honour survivors of the schools, their families, and communities” as “a vital component of the reconciliation process.”
In an interview Tyler Brooks, the OFA’s Director of Communications and Stakeholder Relations, said, “Our group of 15 organizations wanted to have a role in honouring and commemorating the lost children and survivors of residential schools, their families and the lasting impact on their communities.”
In its September 30th statement, the Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario (EFAO) emphasized the need for all Canadians to be educated about Canada’s colonial past and especially residential schools. The primary purpose of the schools was to assimilate Indigenous children into mainstream Canadian culture by stripping them of their Native language, customs and culture. Some describe that process as “killing the Indian in the child.” The TRC named it “cultural genocide.”
The EFAO called farmers, and all Canadians, to “look to the wisdom and leadership of Indigenous peoples for the truth of not only residential schools but also all the inequities and grave injustices faced today” by First Nations peoples.
“The enormity of the intentional, systematic, and violent removal of Indigenous peoples from the land for the historical and ongoing benefit of settlers is overwhelming,” The EFAO added.
The Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario (CFFO) endorsed the OFA statement. “Our joint statement was intended to show support and to encourage the wider agricultural community to reflect on our relationship to the land and to our Indigenous neighbours,” the CFFO’s president Ed Scharringa said in an interview.
A Christian organization by name, the CFFO also addressed the legacy of church-run residential schools. In the approximately 125 years of residential school operation, they were administered variously by Roman Catholic, United, Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian and Mennonite churches in Canada.
As the TRC report documents in shocking detail, many children were forcibly “Christianized” and stripped of their Native language and culture. Many were also psychologically, physically and sexually abused under the watch of church staff, clergy and lay. The discovery last summer of hundreds of unmarked graves on the sites of former residential schools, with thousands more expected to be found, speaks to the egregiousness of that legacy.
“As Christians, we recognize that the Church played a harmful role in supporting the residential school system,” Scharringa said.
The NFU-O (jointly with its parent NFU) appeared to take umbrage at the term “holiday.” “The new official day should be a solemn day of reflection, anti-colonial action, and meaningful reconciliation,” it said. “Indigenous peoples receive no holiday from colonialism.”
“We (Canadians) must all do our part,” the NFU said. That includes “educating ourselves and taking action in solidarity with Indigenous communities.”
True to its long-time activist orientation, the NFU also called out the federal government for failing to live up to its own reconciliation obligations. “After six years, only 13 of the 94 TRC Calls to Action have been fully implemented by the federal government,” the NFU said. But to be fair, not all the 94 Calls to Action were directed at the federal government.
While she recognizes the good intentions behind the farm organizations’ testimonials, Denise Miller, a Cayuga of Six Nations at the Grand River First Nations, says they’re “just statements.” They are “a good conversation starter but in order to make changes – action is required,” Miller said in an interview.
Miller coordinates an Indigenous food and seed sovereignty program for youth called “Revitalising Our Sustenance.” The project provides Indigenous and non-Indigenous youth with opportunities to learn about the importance of sustainable agriculture practices while also growing food for their families and communities.
“The residential school system has affected everything – not just our languages. It changed our relationship to our own agricultural systems and cycles,” Miller said.
Miller views agriculture-related reconciliation through the lens of “Onkwehonwe.” It's a Mohawk word meaning that all life – earth, water, plants, vegetables, trees, animals, rocks, winds, sun, moon, stars, and the spirit world – are interconnected and part of the circle of life. That circle is reflected in the Indigenous phrase, “All My Relations.”
Intensive, chemically dependent agriculture systems “are destroying our environment and our relationships with each other,” Miller continued. “I think a huge change is needed in how we all interact with our environment.”
“Agriculture is way more than just planting rows...more discussions need to be had surrounding restorative agriculture practices,” she added.
According to Indigenous Corporate Training Inc. (ICT), which helps people and organizations “build informed, effective, and respectful relationships with Indigenous peoples and communities,” reconciliation is a complex and multifaceted process that shouldn’t be taken lightly or reduced to mere platitudes.
Some of the markers of reconciliation, ICT says, are honouring treaties, acknowledging and respecting Indigenous rights and title, acknowledging and letting go of negative perceptions and stereotypes, learning about Indigenous history and culture, and healing for all Canadians.
What reconciliation is not, ICT adds, is a trend, a single statement, a box to be ticked, about blame or guilt, about the loss of rights of non-Indigenous Canadians, or someone else’s responsibility.
“We all recognize the role the agriculture industry played in the colonization of what is now known as Canada,” the OFA said, adding, “farms across Ontario are situated on treaty lands and traditional territories of many diverse First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples across the province.”
While representing 4.9 percent of Canada’s total population, Indigenous peoples hold only 6.3 per cent of the country’s total landmass. Almost all Canadian farmland remains in the possession of those with white settler ancestry.
It’s perhaps ironic that settler agriculture became a tool of colonization given Indigenous peoples’ own traditional agricultural practices – practices that served the early colonizing Europeans well. “Were it not for Indigenous food knowledge,” says York University’s Food Policy for Canada, “Europeans would not likely have survived in Canada.”
In its statement the EFAO said, “Those (of us) who make our livelihood reaping nourishment from the soil owe a profound debt to the original Indigenous stewards of this land.”
Indigenous peoples have a long if not well recognized history of agriculture that dates back many centuries, long before the arrival of Europeans. In the southern reaches of the Americas Native peoples excelled in the art of plant domestication and cultivated some 300 food crops.
Colonizing Europeans introduced many of those crops to Europe where some, including corn, potatoes, beans and tomatoes, became staples. According to research by the University of Saskatchewan, Indigenous foods of the Americas constitute 60 percent of the world’s crops now in cultivation.
Native inhabitants of southern Ontario also farmed. The Haudenosaunee, for example, maintained a strong agricultural tradition and culture associated with especially maize (corn) horticulture.
Generally speaking, Food Policy for Canada states, the Canadian food system is built on land and knowledge appropriated from First Nations people. The settler colonial project depended on agriculture and land possession for its development and success.
“As non-Indigenous farmers, we recognize that we live and work on land stewarded and farmed by Indigenous peoples long before our families set down roots here,” the CFFO’s Scharringa said.
But the Haudenosaunee’s and other First Nations’ customary cultivation practices, foodways and diets were disrupted after Indigenous farmers were dispossessed of the lands they stewarded for thousands of years, Miller said. “So when we think of reconciling with Indigenous communities we must also remember treaties and land responsibilities,” she added.
Mi’kmaq lawyer Pam Palmater sharpens Miller’s point. “What we should be imagining is what Canada could look like if we started returning so-called Crown Lands back to First Nations,” the Ryerson University professor wrote in The Breach (“Canada: It’s time for Land Back,” November 5, 2021).
If Canada and Canadians are interested in true reconciliation and a real Nation to Nation relationship, Palmater adds, then that means “Land Back.”
“Land Back” has become a rallying cry for thousands of Indigenous youth across Canada who seek to restore Indigenous governance and sustainable approaches to land stewardship. For them a just path forward is impossible without the return of land that was lost through dishonoured treaties or outright theft.
“Indigenous calls for “land back” must be understood as not just about Crown land but also about the need for reconciliation with settler farmers who grow food on unceded…Indigenous territory,” said the NFU’s Thompson.
All the farm organizations interviewed for this article said they are in the early stages of understanding their role within the truth and reconciliation process. The NFU, however, appears to have journeyed farthest along that path which may serve as incentive for others.
For years discussions of settler colonialism have been central “to how NFU members understand their relationship to the land and to Indigenous peoples across Turtle Island (North America),” says Thompson.
Much of the NFU’s research and leadership on Indigenous issues has come from its Indigenous Solidarity Working Group (ISWG) which meets regularly. Formed in 2015, the ISWG’s members include Indigenous and non-Indigenous farmers from across Canada.
Issues researched and discussed include how farm labour was frequently imposed on Indigenous children at residential schools and that, prior to the creation of Temporary Foreign Worker Programs, Indigenous people were forced to work on “settler owned and operated” farms in Ontario and other provinces.
NFU members have built informal partnerships with Indigenous communities for decades, Thompson said. Local Indigenous communities have been given access to their private farmland for hunting and foraging, for indigenous seed saving initiatives, and to practice traditional ceremonies.
“Building real, lasting relationships with Indigenous peoples and communities is also the basis of real truth and reconciliation,” Thompson added. “We all benefit from the soil where we have planted our roots – it is literally our common ground.” ◊