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Reframing Food as a Commons in Canada: Learning from Customary and Contemporary Indigenous Food Initiatives that Reflect a Normative Shift


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This chapter interrogates the role of the dominant narrative of food-as-commodity in shaping how we approach food systems policy in Canada. Conventional food guidance in Canada encourages personal responsibility for health – like choosing fruit over candy bars -- while avoiding collective responsibility – like asking why candy bars are sold at schools, who is selling those candies and what are the consequences of those candies to public health. Hidden within this conventional approach are assumptions about the role of individuals, communities, markets, and states in shaping our food choices. In this chapter, we begin by outlining the theoretical basis for our investigation into the role of food valuation in critical food guidance. We expand on the concept of food as commons with overviews of a multi-dimensional food values framework and a tri-centric governance model. Next, we provide three case studies involving Anishnaabek food systems to explore valuation of food beyond commodity in customary and contemporary food systems. Finally, we discuss how valuing food as a commons can offer critical food guidance for addressing multiple socio-ecological issues connected with food systems.
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Koberinski at al. (in press). Reframing food as a commons in Canada. Critical Food Guidance, McGill University.
Reframing Food as a Commons in Canada: Learning from
Customary and Contemporary Indigenous Food Initiatives that
Reflect a Normative Shift1
Jodi Koberinski (University of Waterloo)
Jose Luis Vivero-Pol (Université catholique de Louvain) and
Joseph LeBlanc (Northern Ontario School of Medicine; Lakehead University)
This chapter interrogates the role of the dominant narrative of food-as-commodity in
shaping how we approach food systems policy in Canada. Conventional food guidance in
Canada encourages personal responsibility for health like choosing fruit over candy bars --
while avoiding collective responsibility – like asking why candy bars are sold at schools, who is
selling those candies and what are the consequences of those candies to public health. Hidden
within this conventional approach are assumptions about the role of individuals, communities,
markets, and states in shaping our food choices.
Human values shape policies, usually privileging those that are aligned with dominant
values and neglecting those that confront dominant values. In that sense, valuing food as a
commodity privileges specific market-based policy goals, regulations, and public subsidies that
aim to enlarge market coverage, prioritizing corporate profit over societies´ common good, and
priorizing private enclosures of commons resources over universal access to food for all.
Conversely, the normative shift this chapter proposes -- valuing and governing food as a
commons -- could enable socio-ecologically based policy goals and regulations. It would redirect
public subsidies to support customary and contemporary practices that produce and distribute
food differently. A shift towards valuing multiple food dimensions can engender legal
frameworks that enable more and better 1) self-production; 2) stewardship of natural commons;
and 3) civic participation in the governance of a resource that is essential for everybody´s
survival. Valuing food as a commons can provide a complementary narrative to alternative civic
claims such as food sovereignty, agro-ecology or food justice.
In this chapter, we begin by outlining the theoretical basis for our investigation into the
role of food valuation in critical food guidance. We expand on the concept of food as commons
with overviews of a multi-dimensional food values framework and a tri-centric governance
model. Next, we provide three case studies involving Anishnaabek food systems to explore
valuation of food beyond commodity in customary and contemporary food systems. Finally, we
discuss how valuing food as a commons can offer critical food guidance for addressing multiple
socio-ecological issues connected with food systems.
1 Koberinski, J., J.L. Vivero-Pol and J. LeBlanc (in press). Reframing food as a commons in Canada: Learning from
customary and contemporary indigenous food initiatives. In: Sumner, J. and E. Desjardins, eds. Critical Food
Guidance, McGill University Press, Montreal.
Koberinski at al. (in press). Reframing food as a commons in Canada. Critical Food Guidance, McGill University.
1.- What is the Commons?
Commons research an emergent field that crosses disciplinary boundaries-- builds on
the late economist Elinor Ostrom’s work, which positions commons as resources held by an
identifiable community of interdependent users. These users exclude outsiders, while regulating
use by members of the local community through institutional arrangements supported by
collective action (Ostrom, 1999). Rivalry and excludability are the two features used by
economists to define private/public/common goods. Neo-classical economists, including Ostrom,
considered those properties as ontological (i.e., inherent to the goods); thus they defined goods
as “being private, public or commons”. The consideration of “food as a private good by nature”
helped configure a for-profit market for food items during the second half of the twentieth
century (Vivero-Pol, 2017b). However, considering any good as private, public or commons is
arguably a social construct and not an ontological property of goods. With this understanding, it
follows that societies can mould those properties according to prevalent values, existing
technologies, current availability and number of users.
In practice, commons can be not only material goods but also territories, life support
systems, governing arrangements, and immaterial knowledge upon which local communities rely
to meet social, cultural and economic needs and identities (Nayak, 2017; Vivero-Pol, 2017a).
Commons can be characterized by their “commoning” practices and not by the properties of the
goods (Dardot and Laval, 2014). Indeed, collective governance and common property regimes
have a long history of being efficient systems for managing shared natural resources (De Moor,
2015: 4). Despite centuries of liberalization, enclosure and misappropriation, over 12 million
hectares of commons lands still remain in Europe (European Commons Assembly, 2017).
The current industrial way of producing, transforming, transporting and consuming food,
with its multiple unaccounted externalities (e.g., ill health, reduced biodiversity, climate impact),
is the major driver of planetary transformation (Rockstrom et al., 2016), already pushing four
planetary boundaries beyond their safety thresholds -- climate change, loss of biosphere integrity,
land-system change, altered biogeochemical cycles (Steffen et al., 2015). A normative shift in
how we value food may function as a precursor to both implement meaningful policies that
institutionalize multi-functionality over uniformity, and legitimize multiple understandings of
ecosystems other than as ‘natural capital’.
The dominant economic discourse reduces food to a commodity based on rivalry and
excludability, which conventional economists insist is best managed by markets, absolute
proprietary rights, purchasing power and privatization. Yet food has been produced and
distributed through non-market mechanisms for millennia. Being traded is not the same as being
commodified. All commodities are traded but not all traded goods are commodities. A
commodity is a special kind of good or service associated with capitalist modes of production
(Radin, 1996) where its exchangeability for some other thing is the only socially relevant
dimension (Appadurai, 2005). Commodification is therefore the outcome of food systems under
capitalism—an economy predicated on the fallacy of endless growth (Holt-Giménez, 2017).
Koberinski at al. (in press). Reframing food as a commons in Canada. Critical Food Guidance, McGill University.
2.- Food as a Commons
When one thinks of a commons, one thinks of such shared resources as pasture land, our
shared atmosphere, water bodies and seeds. Karatani (2014) contextualizes private property and
market economies as one of four typologies of modes of exchange, building on the tradition of
Polanyi (1944) and others. These are: a) reciprocity of the gift, where groups were either pooling
resources (e.g., nomadic peoples) or establishing gift exchange mechanisms (e.g., agrarian/ semi-
agrarian peoples); b) rule and protection, where first feudal lords and then the state exchanged
protection and governance in exchange for goods produced by commoners; c) commodity
exchange, whereby money is traded for a given commodity according to market rules; and d) a
new, post-capitalist value regime that can utilize technological opportunities to revive reciprocity
practices enabled by web-based platforms and self-regulated local collective actions (Karatani
2014). In that sense, Linebaugh (2010) describes “commoning” as the activity that brings
together people’s labour to collectively own and govern a good or resource. This collective
action can take various forms, including owning and governing food as a commons, which is a
direct challenge to its increasingly commodified form (Martorell and Andrée, 2019). It would
create alternative spaces for action and legitimize alternative forms of governance and
distribution of food that are not exclusively based on commodification or commerce.
Common lands were pivotal in providing food by developing small farming agriculture
since the Middle Ages across what is known today as Europe. Common lands are still important
to produce seafood, and as water catchments, carbon sinks, or priority areas for conservation
(Vivero-Pol, 2017c). For instance, Scandinavian countries recognize foraging rights for
mushrooms and berries for every citizen (La Mela, 2014) or Baldios in Portugal are legally-
recognized collective arrangements to govern certain forested areas in which foods are harvested
(Lopes et al. 2013). In America, Brazil, Honduras, Venezuela and Nicaragua formally recognize
the communal rights of Indigenous communities to traditional territories, again impacting
Indigenous food systems (Robson and Lichtenstein 2013). In Asia, over 10,000 villages in
Vietnam collectively manage over two million hectares of traditional community forests
(Marschke at al. 2012). Food commons also include knowledge (such as medicinal uses of
blueberry leaves, or how to sustainably harvest, clean, and prepare a lake trout). In fact,
knowledge held in food commons is often represented in language, culture, art, ceremony and
traditional practices related to food, cooking or cultural traditions.
3.- Food Dimensions Framework: the theoretical basis for food as a
The theoretical aspect of the normative shift towards food as a commons is based on the
Food Dimensions Framework (Vivero-Pol, 2017a), which explored six dimensions with which
all food is endowed: an essential resource for humans, a human right, a cultural determinant, a
natural resource, a public good and a tradable good. Only the latter can be valued in monetary
terms, but dominates over the others in the contemporary industrial food system. The holistic
valuation of all six dimensions opens up consideration of food as a commons, opposing its
current designation as a commodity whereby only the tradeable dimension is valued. It is this
expanded dimensionality which can serve as a form of food guidance for those who are inspired
to act, advocate for, and build awareness about systemic shifts that accept food as commons.
Koberinski at al. (in press). Reframing food as a commons in Canada. Critical Food Guidance, McGill University.
Figure 1 illustrates these six food dimensions, showing the commodity valuation
contextualized within a commons governance structure, alongside non-economic values, plus a
seventh one proposed here food as sacred. However, we make a cautionary note here to warn
against ‘new age’ interpretations of such cultural concepts. For Levkoe and Blay-Palmer (2018:
74), whose research on food systems score cards recommends recognizing food as sacred, “this
principle speaks to recognizing that food is a gift of life and should not be squandered. It asserts
that food cannot be commodified”.
Respectful and relationship-oriented participatory action research is required to
conceptualize ‘sacred’ meaningfully as it clearly relates to the multi-dimensionality of food itself
and the importance of food (plant- or animal-based) to both Indigenous and non-Indigenous food
systems. An entry point for Western readers reflecting on food as sacred includes the recognition
of that dimension in the Christian eucharist, namely the sacredness of Jesus Christ’s blood and
body represented by wine and bread, which would not be commodified as such. Another key
example comes from the Dené belief in the sacredness of the caribou. Respect for the caribou
when killed for food (also ensuring it will “allow” caribou to remain as a food source) includes
sharing all parts of the animal with the entire community as a commons (Walsh, 2015).
Fig. 1 Seven Food Dimensions (Vivero Pol, 2017a; the authors).
The dominant narrative in the industrial food system is the one of monetized food values
exclusively, and values that cannot be monetized become secondary or neglected. For example,
that is why ecosystem services have to be valued in monetary terms, transforming into dollars the
value of bee pollination. Yet, the multi-dimensional valuation of food is not a new narrative. It
has been the “normal” narrative since human beings were organized in hunting-gathering packs
(Shepperson, 2017; Vivero-Pol, 2017b). Moreover, the value-based narrative of food as a
commons can fit with current (and growing) alternatives to the dominant industrial food system,
such as food democracy, food councils, community-supported agriculture, food justice or food
sovereignty. Radical re-orientations of worldviews are necessary to bring about fundamental
Koberinski at al. (in press). Reframing food as a commons in Canada. Critical Food Guidance, McGill University.
change in food systems, and Sumner and Desjardins (this volume) identify encouraging social
change as the fourth component of critical food guidance. Therefore this chapter proposes to re-
conceptualize food as a commons and to re-orientate governance structures (e.g. policies, legal
frameworks, financial incentives, prohibitions) to produce, transform and distribute food
differently, so as to ensure healthy food is accessible to all, and preserve food-producing
resources and maintain human societies within Earth´s limits.
4.- Transition Pathways to Food as a Commons The Tricentric
Governance Model
How can this narrative be practically operationalized? Vivero-Pol (2017a) proposes a
transition pathway towards food as a commons, adapted here to reflect the Canadian context
(Figure 2). In this model, three realms of governance --the state, collective actions and the
market -- form a collaboration. State actions are redistributive, policy enabling, and limiting on
privatization. Collective actions refers to the various engagements of citizens as common
property rights holders with their food system. Markets in this governance model lose the
capacity to speculate on food (i.e., by banning speculation) – capacities that are relatively recent
in the realm of finance but are creating new monopolies of capital that wield immense power
over food systems (Clapp and Isakson, 2018).
Koberinski at al. (in press). Reframing food as a commons in Canada. Critical Food Guidance, McGill University.
Within the State of Canada, agreements between the state, the self-regulated collective
actions of citizens, and the activities of the market must respect treaty obligations of the State of
Canada and its governments – such as land and water access -- for First Nations communities. In
our adapted tri-governance model, markets operate in parallel with both customary and
contemporary First Nations economies, respecting existing agreements and within inherent title
rights as outlined in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (Diabo,
2018). We have also added Alternative Food Networks (AFNs) at the base of the model, as
AFNs provide a mixed-market approach for expanding contemporary food commons that are
only partially reliant on the commodified food system.
In this model, the state assumes a redistributive function and may work with both public
employees and private enterprises to provide food as a public good to all citizens, fulfilling its
role as guarantor of food as a human right. The state also has a role in creating enabling
legislation, redirecting subsidies to stimulate development in target areas (e.g., agroecology,
small-scale farming) as well as regulating/preventing new privatizations of food-producing
commons (e.g., land, water, seeds, traditional agricultural knowledge). Additionally, the state can
lead the re-commoning of previously privatized/commodified resources, either material (e.g.,
fish stocks, hunting territories, water sources) or non-material (e.g., genetic resources, traditional
medical practices, First Nation images).
This tri-governance model presents one heuristic for possible approaches to
implementation, yet we have examples of both customary and contemporary food commons in
Canada from which we can gain insights for a food system based on values beyond commercial
5.- Food as a Commons in Canada: customary and contemporary systems
Commons are still poorly understood in Canada where the dominant economic view
reflects the fact that private property rights are the basis of the legal system. The primacy of
absolute private property today renders notions of common property an antiquated, pre-industrial
form of governance. Yet examples of commons in daily Canadian life abound, including
libraries, open-source software, municipal squares and parks, recipes and schools—resources
shared by citizens and collectively managed in some manner for the benefit of the public.
Commons are predominantly expressed as collective proprietary regimes, but can also include
collective governance mechanisms or peer-to-peer production of any given good. Conceptually,
food commons principles find commonalities with aspects of various Aboriginal peoples’ food
traditions, governance structures, and agro-ecological practices rooted in well-informed
customary traditions, such as the Potlatch system of the Pacific Northwestern Indigenous
peoples, and the Moose Hunt gifting system of the Anishnaabek (LeBlanc, 2014)i.
The current food systems of northern Aboriginal peoples are characterized by a mixed
diet of harvested food from the land and imported food sold in stores, posing unique
considerations for understanding food security and health (Council of Canadian Academies,
2014; Galloway, 2017). However, a resurgence in traditional food systems among Indigenous
peoples heralds a return to healthier diets and a set of commonalities for understanding food as a
Koberinski at al. (in press). Reframing food as a commons in Canada. Critical Food Guidance, McGill University.
6.- Traditional food systems in Northern Ontario
Food production by farming, hunting and gathering, fishing and trapping was the basis of
traditional food systems for millennia (Kuhnlein et al., 2001; Willows, 2005). A variety of forest
and freshwater foods-- including fish, deer, caribou, moose, rabbit, bear, beaver, partridge,
goose, cattail roots, berries, seeds, rose hips, edible flowers and teas -- are the foundation of a
traditional diet, one based on seasonal and regional availability of these and other edible plants
and animals (Boulet et al., 2014). The contemporary importance of traditional food goes beyond
nutrition as Aboriginal peoples see it: food is an important indicator of cultural expression and
has great sociological meaning (Kuhnlein et al., 2001; Willows, 2005). Many Indigenous peoples
view food and medicines as one and the same (Obomsawin, 2007). Traditional foods – also
called country foods by the Anishnaabek (LeBlanc 2014)-- are key drivers in the reduction and
mitigation of diet-related non-communicable diseases experienced in some communities as
epidemics, including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and obesity (Bordeleau et al., 2016). This
food-as-medicine dimension has recently been proposed to enrich the food commons framework
(Tirado-Von Pahlen, 2019).
Quantitative valuations of the forest and freshwater food contributions in northern Ontario
are sparse, although in the Ojibway community of Webequie, local fish contributed
approximately half a pound of meat per person per day (Hopper and Power, 1991), and for the
Omushkego Cree, local meats contributed a monetary value of $7.8 million, equal to one-third of
their annual economy (Berkes et al., 1994). The perception held among Aboriginal people that
their traditional foods hold high health values has been well documented (Wein, 1995; Gittelsohn
et al., 1996; Johnson et al., 2011). Many Aboriginal peoples also believe that the restoration of
traditional subsistence foods and practices is essential to community vitality (Conti, 2006). For
them, the concept of health reflects a state of connectedness with spirit, culture, community, land,
family and within the individual self (Ray, 2007). These realities must inform critical food
guidance when developing policies that impact Aboriginal peoples.
Case studies of Indigenous food commons
This section presents three case studies that help to explain Indigenous food commons.
The first two cases present aspects of Indigenous food commons, while the third is a counter-
case that highlights the problems associated with valuing food as a commodity, not as a
6.a.- TEK Elders Group: belonging to, using and stewarding the commons ii
Anishnaabek territories are located above and around the Great Lakes, spanning three
provinces and six states. The Anishnaabek are the second largest Indigenous cultural and
language group in North America. The Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) Elders Group
of the North Shore of Lake Huron was formed in 2014 to end aerial herbicide use in the
Robinson Huron Treaty territories. Representing 21 clans, the TEK Elders Group has been
acknowledged by all 21 Band Councils’ leadership as having jurisdiction over ecological
management of the territories covered by the 1850 Robinson-Huron Treaty.
Koberinski at al. (in press). Reframing food as a commons in Canada. Critical Food Guidance, McGill University.
The Elders are holders of Indigenous scientific knowledge, which focuses on place-based
ecological relationships. Anishnaanek clans are connected to specific animals or totems. The
totem system weaves two concepts -- enawendiwin (strands connecting all parts of creation) and
waawiyeyaag (interwoven systems of circularity) -- together to articulate the interconnected
ways in which circles of Anishinaabeg relationality operate. These strands come together to form
a law known as nindinawemaganidog (all of my relations), commanding Anishnaabek to
consider the web of life (Sinclair, 2013). As woodland peoples, Anishnaabek are dependent
socially, economically, spiritually, and culturally on the health of the forest, including the health
of the wildlife, plants, water, and the soil. The Elders speak of Treaty rights recognized and
affirmed in section 35(1) of the Constitution Act, 1982, which acknowledge the Anishnaabek of
the territories as the caretakers of the lands and waters: “These were given to us by the Creator so
that we may continue to live as Anishinaabek people for generations to come. We have never
relinquished these sacred responsibilities” (Pine, 2018).
Conservation of ecological values in western science is ‘point-focused’, aimed at
surveying land to exploit resources, according to Art Petahtegoose, former Chief and a TEK
Group Elder from White Fish Lake First Nation. Environmental assessments include statistical
data and cultural relevancy on specific “values” or points of cultural significance such as nests of
a particular bird, or traditional trap lines. This point-focused approach objectifies lifeforms,
obscuring Anishnaabek presence in their own home. In contrast to this, as Penthagoose
illustrated during a meeting with the forestry company AECOM (August 2018), “when we put
the Anishinaabek name on a water body, we say there is a life there, an ecology that has to
remain intact”. Anishnaabek food systems invoke responsibility towards both previous
generations’ efforts and towards future generations’ needs—including non-humans.
In that sense, the stewardship of natural resources is inter-generational. Anishnaabek
knowledge includes institutions such as the clan system, which identifies kin groups with non-
human family members to maintain ecosystem integrity and encodes understanding of socio-
ecological sustainability. ‘Users’ of the commons include all living beings within the ecosystem,
not only the human ones. Thus, one can see how the Anishnaabek do not hold an individual
property consideration on food-producing natural resources, all of them endowed with non-
economic attributes and spiritual values that evidently escape from economic valuations in
monetary terms.
6.b.- Aroland Youth Blueberry Initiative: A commons approach based on cultural
As an example of critical food guidance, this case study explores the relationship between
food-as-commons leanings of Indigenous food systems and the food-as-commodity approach of
the dominant industrial food economy. The community of Aroland First Nation is an Indian
Reserve located in the boreal forest region of Northern Ontario. The people are the descendants
of signatories to Treaty #9- known today as the Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN). Reserve lands
encompass 19,599 hectares and extend northwards from Highway 643 to land along the western
and northern shores of Esnagami Lake-- a territory overlapping two-thirds of the province in
Koberinski at al. (in press). Reframing food as a commons in Canada. Critical Food Guidance, McGill University.
Ontario. Recently published accounts of the signing of Treaty #9, support the Nishnawbe Aski
Nation perspective that the intent was not to cede title but to share the land (Long 2010).
The Aroland Blueberry Cooperative is a community-driven initiative, with local
knowledge and youth involvement as main pillars. Launched in 2006 with $1500 in self-funding
by community members and countless volunteer hours, the venture became profitable and
financially viable in a few months. This initiative aims to build leadership and social
entrepreneurial skills in the community’s youth, seeking actions that are emergent from the
Indigenous worldview. Undertaken through collective actions, this initiative relies on members
sharing opportunities with each other, respecting the labour and knowledge of pickers through
engagement as equals and demonstrating reciprocity to both members and workers through fair
The initiative seeks to provide real-world experiential learning opportunities. M embers
learn and teach practical skills that support life in their places, and they seek advice from local
knowledge holders. On the day prior to setting up the buying depot, ‘contracts’ are issued to
interested community members who will pick the berries. After buying from pickers, berries are
marketed throughout the region of northern Ontario (LeBlanc, 2014:141). As the Anishnaabek
participants in the research say, ”we honour our responsibility to all creation by not taking more
than we need” (LeBlanc, 2014:139). As a result of this cultural teaching, the cooperative
members grapple with whether it is acceptable to harvest food for sale and if harvesting food
beyond personal consumption constitutes taking more than one’s needs.
In the past, the community generated livelihood through participation in the traditional
economy. Community and family bonds were stronger and reciprocal, and goals such as profit
maximisation and individual competition were not found. The Elders emphasized conviviality in
their speeches, citing the role of families in primary production and interactions with each other
and neighbouring communities to trade food, goods, fuel, and knowledge. These exchanges were
steeped in respect, reciprocity, and the expectation of mutual responsibility (LeBlanc, 2014:
141). This behaviour has been amply documented by many researchers, with two classical works
explaining in detail this type of moral economy that was prevalent in human history for
centuries: the gift economy and reciprocity (Mauss, 1970; Sahlins, 1972).
This project is an example of a mixed-economy approach, blending customary food
commons (the blueberries growing on collectively held lands and harvested collectively) and
contemporary food commons (the cooperative structure of business linked to outside markets in
Thunder Bay). The greatest barrier to success for this initiative is transportation. A return trip
between Aroland and markets in Thunder Bay is more than eight hours (Stolz, Levkoe and
Nelson, 2017). Another issue the youth face is the aerial spraying of glyphosate-based herbicides
across the Northern Great Lakes’ forests and the impact on blueberry production. In 2012, the
project brought an estimated $30,000 to $50,000 into the local economy.
Informing the cooperative actions with Indigenous worldview has created unique
opportunities on shared lands and re-invigorated food commons approaches within the territories.
And while poverty, disenfranchisement and interpersonal health issues legacies of Canada’s
defaulting on treaty obligations and the residential school system —continue to impact Aroland
Koberinski at al. (in press). Reframing food as a commons in Canada. Critical Food Guidance, McGill University.
youth, this project sets a template for further opportunities to develop commons regimes in the
territories, with similar benefits.
6.c.- Nutrition North Canada: a counter-case that obscures non-Western valuations iv
Launched in April 2011, Nutrition North Canada (NNC) is a governmental program
designed to address food insecurity in northern communities that works with, and subsidises,
registered retailers and suppliers across the North. NNC air-ships food items from industrial
food system staples like fruits, vegetables, milk products, eggs, and meat to ‘country food’
staples like Arctic char, caribou and musk-ox. Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada is
charged with monitoring compliance to ensure savings are passed on to northern residents. The
program budget is $60 million a year with new funds in 2016 to extend the number of
communities participating, and adding a healthy eating education component for an additional
$4.7 million annually.
After assessing the programme performance, Galloway (2017) enumerated several
shortcomings in the program that allowed retailers to maximize profits at the expense of
community well-being. The review revealed gaps in food cost reporting and lack of price caps
and other means of ensuring program targets were met. These gaps may have been avoided if
multi-dimensional food values were taken into account (see Figure 1). Galloway’s research
confirmed the critique held within Indigenous communities that NNC made no provision for
country food to be sourced locally using traditional methods of harvesting and processing foods.
In that sense, NNC approached the food security issues faced by northern Aboriginal peoples
through market mechanisms exclusively, using a food-as-commodity worldview. This lack of
recognition of the multi-dimensionality of food misses the opportunity to enhance community
self sufficiency through customary food economies.
This market-based model works on the basis of unaccountable competition between a few
corporations that are heavily subsidized with public funds. Additionally, subsidy claims are
outsourced for processing, leaving the Northern (and local) public little oversight of the claims
process. Moreover, retail consolidation in the North affects what is available where, and with the
NNC failing to set price caps on subsidized items, the main beneficiaries of the program seem to
be the retailers. Lack of competition is so profound that one entity, North West Company,
received half of all NNC subsidies, or $32.8 million, in 2014-2015.
The report concluded that in order to engender sustainable improvements to food security
in target communities, alternative forms of policy may need to be considered. And yet, those
alternative policies cannot be explored while food continues to be framed as a pure commodity
to be distributed through market mechanisms. Critical food guidance in this case would draw
attention to the question, why not guarantee that food has the same legal protection and
universal access as health or education?
7.- Discussion
The theoretical and practical framework of food as a commons offers critical food
guidance for addressing multiple socio-ecological issues connected with food systems. Adopting
Koberinski at al. (in press). Reframing food as a commons in Canada. Critical Food Guidance, McGill University.
the seven food dimensions (Fig. 1) as a policy lens at various levels of decision-making from
household choices through to the emerging National Food Policy.
Adopting a tri-governance model (Fig. 2) in resource development initiatives that
prioritizes food systems over short-term resource exploitation could strengthen Canada’s Nation
to Nation relationships with indigenous peoples. These shifts would correct the disconnection of
treaty rights and food security as was understood at the time of these agreements.
With resource exploitation sanctioned by the government through contracts with private
enterprises as is the case in the Robinson Huron Treaty territory with forestry giant AECOM, the
capacity to maintain or rebuild traditional food economies is weakened as complex agro-forestry
ecosystems are replaced with forestry mono-cultures (TEK Elders, pers. comm.; Stolz, Levkoe
and Nelson, 2017). Revisiting commodification not only of foods but of forests and water
resources is crucial to address Indigenous peoples’ food security issues. Forest commodification
treats vast swaths of ecosystem as timber, and after cutting, commercially valuable species are
prioritized. Yet forests and waters provide traditional foods include migratory species like
Caribou and fish, and thus vast territories of intact wilderness are required to ensure a
functioning food system. Adjusting Canada’s environmental assessment processes at the
provincial and the federal level to prioritize this broad view of food production would ensure
resource developers would have to consider impacts on indigenous food systems before
development permits could be issued.
A normative shift in how we value food, away from pure economic considerations and
towards legitimizing non-economic dimensions, develops the capacity to act politically based on
these other considerations. This shift could be championed by food advocates everywhere—from
food policy councils to regional health units. Food as a human right, an essential resource for
survival, a public good and a commons cannot just be judged by its economic returns, investment
costs or economic feasibility, but by the social impact it can have on our common wealth,
reducing inequalities, securing essential rights and safeguarding natural resources for current and
future generations.
Public policies that incorporate this normative shift can be instruments for transformation
if Canada chooses to recognize the multi-dimensionality of food and its consideration as a
commons, public good and human right in the preamble of the new National Food Policy (ad hoc
Committee 2017). Examples across Canada suggest this normative shift is already underway in
the form of various municipal food charters in communities like Fredericton and Kamloops to
the provincial food charter adopted in Manitoba all of which view food in multi-dimensional
Moreover, food as a commons offers policy levers for mitigating and adapting to climate
breakdown. The benefit for public good can be modeled by utilizing public properties, such as
schools, libraries, municipal lands, and government buildings to initiate or amplify food
commons projects. Public institutions can promote freely-accessible urban gardens, purchase and
offer organic food in schools, hospitals, army headquarters and the like, include green roof-tops
as compulsory architectural measures, ban ultra-processed foods on their premises, or employ
farmers as public servants just to name a few. Another concrete policy action triggered by a
Koberinski at al. (in press). Reframing food as a commons in Canada. Critical Food Guidance, McGill University.
normative shift: food provided to our children in school lunch programs should be locally-
sourced, seasonal, organic and freshly prepared. There are political implications for this counter-
hegemonic approach to food systems, but they require a broader valuation of food and a new
social construct to view, produce and distribute food differently. Without a solid sense of this
altered landscape, policy explorations for reframing food as a commons will be less effective in
articulating pathways for transformation.
This normative shift offers not only guiding principles relevant for regional and urban
food policy councils within the Canadian state sector, but also critical food guidance for
government policies that shape First Nations and traditional or country food initiatives. Programs
aimed to improve Aboriginal peoples’ food security that adopt a multi-dimensional food values
framework give space for program delivery to recognize non-economic and relational values
(Pascual et al., 2017), always prevalent in Aboriginal narratives but largely obscured in Western
policies and subsidies. Moreover, by accepting non-economic dimensions of food as well as
economic ones, food commons programmes can promote localized traditional or country food
networks, and fulfill the duty to protect wild spaces in which Aboriginal peoples engage in the
food forestry, harvesting and hunting economies as protected in various Treaties— Treaty 9 in
particular. Nutrition North, while a failed policy, could implement the multi-dimensional food
values model to help address fundamental flaws embedded in a food-as-commodity approach.
Research across the North suggests that developing co-management agencies and nutritional
monitoring, promoting knowledge exchange on how northern Aboriginal peoples adapt to
consumption of alternative species, and fostering regional sharing networks (which are currently
excluded from the NNC Program) together preserve nutritional integrity and cultural survival
(Rosol et al., 2016; LeBlanc, Berkes and Joly, 2002; Armitage et al., 2011).
Successful transition to food as a commons depends in part on ensuring this
interconnectedness is captured in the way we collectively define goals and institutions for
governing that transition. Applied to sustainable and fair food systems, the way we define food
(values, purpose, meanings) shapes the governing mechanisms we can devise to better produce,
distribute and consume that food. The framework proposed here offers critical food guidance to
embed the multi-dimensionality of food and its consideration as a commons in alternative
collective decision-making structures that clearly would require different institutions, policies,
subsidies and legal frameworks.
Further research is required to make the case for the Canadian government to adopt a
declaration of the multidimensionality of food, such that food is no longer considered as a mere
commodity but a commons, public good and human right that shall be guaranteed to every
Canadian citizen. Adopting this framework could relieve state, private sector and civil society
from engaging in the conceptual and economic gymnastics involved with trying to commodify
other non-economic food dimensions.
Pursuing partnerships for land to be used in food commons schemes could be a “tool for
localizing the food system and decolonizing land at the same time.” (Bowness, 2015: 24-25).
The desire to create commons on public lands has both the potential for both decolonization
(Grey and Petal, 2014) as well as the extension of existing conflicts. Employing participatory
action research, as the one used here with Anishnaabek communities, as a methodology for food
Koberinski at al. (in press). Reframing food as a commons in Canada. Critical Food Guidance, McGill University.
commoning scholarship offers another tool for building local capacity to transform food systems
and decolonizing relationships. In that sense, valuing and governing food as a commons will help
to re-connect food to its multiple dimensions that are not valued when food is simply a
Koberinski at al. (in press). Reframing food as a commons in Canada. Critical Food Guidance, McGill University.
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i An investigation into customary and contemporary food commons in Canada is rooted in the context of
Canada’s relationships with Indigenous Nations in historical times and nowadays. The Canadian context is
complicated by murky legal foundations for nationhood and a Treaty-making legacy from the British Empire
(McFarlane and Schabus 2017). We encourage readers seeking a deeper understanding of these contexts to read
Manuel and Robertson’s Unsettling Canada (2015). Indigenous peoples entered into Treaty-making processes with
the British Crown, which explains why there are numbered Treaties covering different physical territories. Canada
did not have its own Constitution until 1982, and as a successor state to the British Crown, Canada has a duty to
implement the Treaties as originally negotiated in good faith (Makokis 2013), and to continue to engage in Treaty
making with Indigenous Nations in unceded territories as a prerequisite for the Crown’s subjects to access
Indigenous lands (Venne 2017: 23). Friendship Treaties signed by the British Crown and Indigenous peoples cannot
be understood simply as surrender of land for purchase, and actually the Indigenous people still retain certain rights
and entitlements over the territories governed by the treaties. These were built on the recognition of inherent rights
of the original inhabitants and were meant to provide benefits in exchange for access to Indigenous territories
(Makokis 2013). Two of the case studies in this chapter involve First Nations with whom the British Crown entered
into treaties and who still hold rights to access, use and withdraw.
Koberinski at al. (in press). Reframing food as a commons in Canada. Critical Food Guidance, McGill University.
Through colonization, the diets of Aboriginal peoples in Canada have undergone a significant transition from local
foods to processed foods (Pelto and Pelto, 1983), facilitated by various factors including physical estrangement from
the land, practices and knowledge (Vecsey, 1987), assimilative pressures to change existing social, economic and
food systems (Mihesuah, 2003), and contamination of the natural environments that support local food systems
(Rosenberg, et al. 1997; Willows 2009).
ii The TEK Elders’ Group case study arises from a series of interviews and public appearances with three
Anishnaabek Elders from the Robinson Huron Treaty territories Ray Owl, Willie Pine, and Art Petahtegooseand
the TEK Elders’ Group coordinator Sue Chiblow, an ecologist. This case study is informed by interviews held by
one of the co-authors (Jodi Koberisnki) and speeches recorded during public events. More specifically a) public
protests held in October 2016 (Ottawa), May 2017 and April 2018 (Toronto); b) meetings in June 2017 and August
2018 with TEK Elders Group, c) an open-ended interview with Ray Owl and Sue Chiblow in November 2018 at the
Parliament of World Religions and d) reporting by Dorothy Schrieber of between 2015 and
iii The Aroland Youth Blueberry Initiative case study is a result of participatory action research
undertaken by chapter co-author Joseph LeBlanc in 2014 with community members/ researchers Mark Bell and
Sheldon Atlookan to describe the impacts of Ontario’s natural resource management regime on the accessibility and
availability of forest and fresh water foods by the Aroland First Nation members. Rather than engage community
members as ‘participants’ or ‘key informants’, a participatory action research methodology and Indigenous research
framework were employed to integrate Indigenous knowledge systems (LeBlanc 2014; Martens et al., 2016). The
Aroland Youth Blueberry Initiative was created in the summer of 2008 by five key actors as a result of a larger
community-university relationship in which community members generated their research priorities and questions in
collaboration with Lakehead university partners. The research group then undertook actions in four focus areas, one
of which was non-timber forest product marketing. Key participants included community members, as well as
Aroland First Nation staff and leadership along with staff, graduate students, and faculty members associated with
Lakehead University’s Food Security Research Network.
iv The Nutrition North Canada case study is informed by research resulting from a comprehensive five-
year program review to provide critical guidance (Galloway 2017), including an example of how valuing food
strictly as a commodity is impacting the effectiveness of Indigenous food security policies. As part of his work with
the Sudbury Social Policy Council, chapter co-author Joseph LeBlanc engaged in project development aimed to
improve the health and self-sufficiency of aboriginal communities. Within this initiative, the government was
prepared to give training money to one farmer who would make a business to sell to ten people, but not to ten people
whose aim was food self-sufficiency and reciprocity. The market-oriented policy priorities were clear in this
example. Similar problems were encountered when LeBlanc attempted to develop a program to involve First
Nations engaged in the moose hunt in the Nutrition North Canada program, learning first-hand the impacts of
imposing “food-as-commodity” solutions. The Nutrition North Canada case study illustrates the disconnect between
the top-down imposition of a commoditized food narrative (an ideological construct) and the resistance to this
narrative by those who are supposed to benefit from the governmental support at the bottom.
... The Anishinaabe traditionally lived and migrated around the Great Lakes. As woodland peoples, the Anishinaabe are dependent socially, economically, spiritually, and culturally on the health of the forest, including the health of the wildlife, plants, water, and the soil (Koberinski et al., 2019). The traditional diet includes a variety of foods from the forest and waters, including wild rice, fish, deer, caribou, moose, rabbit, bear, beaver, partridge, goose, pemmican, berries, rose hips, and cattail roots (Koberinski et al., 2019;Pawlowska-Mainville, 2020). ...
... As woodland peoples, the Anishinaabe are dependent socially, economically, spiritually, and culturally on the health of the forest, including the health of the wildlife, plants, water, and the soil (Koberinski et al., 2019). The traditional diet includes a variety of foods from the forest and waters, including wild rice, fish, deer, caribou, moose, rabbit, bear, beaver, partridge, goose, pemmican, berries, rose hips, and cattail roots (Koberinski et al., 2019;Pawlowska-Mainville, 2020). Elders from Poplar River First Nation refer to the Anishinaabe food system in the boreal as aki miijimwhich means the land food or land to live from. ...
... Gardening and agricultural practices reflect the socio-historical significance of this region, as the Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabe Peoples traditionally cultivated foods from the Land, and continue these practices to this day (Mt. Pleasant, 2016;Duncan, 2015;Koberinski et al., 2019;Pawlowska-Mainville, 2020). As described by Chan et al., (2019) While hunting and fishing were discussed by all participants in this study, none of the urban IFS initiatives directly involved these practices. ...
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Indigenous Peoples across Turtle Island have sustained themselves since time immemorial through thriving local place-based food systems. Across the urban centers within Grand River Territory (Kitchener-Waterloo, Guelph, and Cambridge) there is an emerging movement of Indigenous food sovereignty (IFS) initiatives. Interviews with Indigenous people engaged in local IFS initiatives (n=7) explored how place impacts these efforts. Thematic analysis revealed urban IFS initiatives centered around Land-based knowledge and relationships, which shape the social and physical aspects of the urban food environment. The physical environment influenced access to Land and what types of practices could take place in the city, but relationships mitigated how Land was accessed as well as how practices were carried out in community. Despite impacts of colonization and processes of environmental dispossession, Indigenous people living within urban centres are revitalizing their food systems, engaging in Land-based relationships to grow, harvest, process, and share food in community through acts of reciprocity that honour relationships and responsibility to the Land.
... Communities must define what approaches work best for them because of the diverse socio-historical circumstances that affect local experiences of IFS [5,9,62,64]. Indigenous food systems involve governance structures based on the ethics of reciprocity, sharing and valuing food as a sacred gift [2,63,65]; therefore, further research could explore how food economies based on sharing, harvesting, and gifting may provide alternative approaches that increase food security, food access, and support the decolonizing goals of IFS within urban environments. ...
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There are collective movements of Indigenous food sovereignty (IFS) initiatives taking up place and space within urban environments across the Grand River Territory, within southern Ontario, Canada. Indigenous Peoples living within urban centres are often displaced from their home territories and are seeking opportunities to reconnect with culture and identity through Land and food. This research was guided by Indigenous research methodologies and applied community-based participatory research to highlight experiences from seven Indigenous community members engaged in IFS programming and practice. Thematic analysis revealed four inter-related themes illustrated by a conceptual model: Land-based knowledge and relationships; Land and food-based practices; relational principles; and place. Participants engaged in five Land and food-based practices (seed saving; growing and gathering food; hunting and fishing; processing and preserving food; and sharing and distributing), guided by three relational principles (responsibility, relationality, and reciprocity), framed by the social and physical environments of the place. Key findings revealed that employing self-determined processes to grow, harvest, and share food among the Indigenous community provide pathways towards IFS. This study is the first to explore urban IFS initiatives within this region, offering a novel understanding of how these initiatives are taking shape within urban environments.
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Climate change leading to a drastic decline in caribou populations has prompted strict hunting regulations in Canada’s Northwest Territories since 2010. The Dene, a subarctic indigenous people, have responded by turning to tradition and calling for more respectful hunting to demonstrate respectful reciprocity to the caribou, including a community-driven foodways project on caribou conservation and Dene caribou conservation which I co-facilitated in 2011. In these ways the caribou is approached as a person. Dene responses to caribou decline can best be understood by ontological theories of an expanded notion of indigenous personhood. However, I argue these theories are inadequate without an attention to foodways, specifically the getting, sharing, and returning of food to the land. The necessity of sustenance reveals a complicated relationship of give-and-take between humans and caribou, negotiated by tradition, yet complicated by the contemporary crisis.
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The food system, the most important driver of planetary transformation, is broken. Therefore, seeking a sustainable and socially-fair transition pathway out of this crisis becomes an issue of utmost priority. The consideration of food as a commodity, a social construct that played a central role in this crisis, remains the uncontested narrative to lead the different transition pathways, which seems rather contradictory. By exploring the normative values on food, this paper seeks to understand how relevant is the hegemonic narrative of food as commodity and its alternative of food as commons to determine transition trajectories and food policy beliefs. Applying the multi-level perspective framework and developing the ill-studied agency in transition, this research enquired food-related professionals that belong to an online community of practice (N = 95) to check whether the valuation of food is relevant to explain personal stances in transition. Results suggest that the view of food as commodity is positively correlated with a gradually-reforming attitude, whereas food as commons is positively correlated with the counter-hegemonic transformers, regardless of the self-defined position in the transition landscape (regime or niches). At a personal level, there are multiple loci of resistance with counter-hegemonic attitudes in varied institutions of the regime and the innovative niches, many of them holding this discourse of food as commons. Conversely, alter-hegemonic attitudes are not positively correlated with the alternative discourse, and they may inadvertently or purportedly reinforce the neoliberal narrative. Food as commons seems to be a relevant framework that could enrich the multiple transformative constituencies that challenge the industrial food system and therefore facilitate the convergence of movements that reject the commodification of food.
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Nature is perceived and valued in starkly different and often conflicting ways. This paper presents the rationale for the inclusive valuation of nature’s contributions to people (NCP) in decision making, as well as broad methodological steps for doing so. While developed within the context of the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), this approach is more widely applicable to initiatives at the knowledge–policy interface, which require a pluralistic approach to recognizing the diversity of values. We argue that transformative practices aiming at sustainable futures would benefit from embracing such diversity, which require recognizing and addressing power relationships across stakeholder groups that hold different values on human nature-relations and NCP.
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Background: Nutrition North Canada (NNC) is a retail subsidy program implemented in 2012 and designed to reduce the cost of nutritious food for residents living in Canada’s remote, northern communities. The present study evaluates the extent to which NNC provides access to perishable, nutritious food for residents of remote northern communities. Design: Program documents, including fiscal and food cost reports for the period 2011–2015, retailer compliance reports, audits of the program, and the program’s performance measurement strategy are examined for evidence that the subsidy is meeting its objectives in a manner both comprehensive and equitable across regions and communities. Results: NNC lacks price caps or other means of ensuring food is affordable and equitably priced in communities. Gaps in food cost reporting constrain the program’s accountability. From 2011–15, no adjustments were made to community eligibility, subsidy rates, or the list of eligible foods in response to information provided by community members, critics, the Auditor General of Canada, and the program’s own Advisory Board. Measures to increase program accountability, such as increasing subsidy information on point-of-sale receipts, make NNC more visible but do nothing to address underlying accountability issues Conclusions: The current structure and regulatory framework of NNC are insufficient to ensure the program meets its goal. Both the volume and cost of nutritious food delivered to communities is highly variable and dependent on factors such as retailers’ pricing practices, over which the program has no control. It may be necessary to consider alternative forms of policy in order to produce sustainable improvements to food security in remote, northern communities.
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There is an ongoing debate on what constitutes sustainable intensification of agriculture (SIA). In this paper, we propose that a paradigm for sustainable intensification can be defined and translated into an operational framework for agricultural development. We argue that this paradigm must now be defined-at all scales-in the context of rapidly rising global environmental changes in the Anthropocene, while focusing on eradicating poverty and hunger and contributing to human wellbeing. The criteria and approach we propose, for a paradigm shift towards sustainable intensification of agriculture, integrates the dual and interdependent goals of using sustainable practices to meet rising human needs while contributing to resilience and sustainability of landscapes, the biosphere, and the Earth system. Both of these, in turn, are required to sustain the future viability of agriculture. This paradigm shift aims at repositioning world agriculture from its current role as the world's single largest driver of global environmental change, to becoming a key contributor of a global transition to a sustainable world within a safe operating space on Earth.
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Background: The pervasive food insecurity and the diet transition away from local, nutrient-rich country foods present a public health challenge among Inuit living in the Canadian Arctic. While environmental factors such as climate change decreased the accessibility and availability of many country food species, new species were introduced into regions where they were previously unavailable. An adaptation such as turning to alternate country food species can be a viable solution to substitute for the nutrients provided by the declined food species. The objective of this study was to estimate the impact on nutrient intake using hypothetical scenarios that current commonly harvested country foods were reduced by 50%, and were replaced with alternate or new species. Methods: Data collected during the 2007-2008 Inuit Health Survey from 36 Canadian Arctic communities spanning Nunavut, the Inuvialuit Settlement Region and Nunatsiavut were used. Results: A 50% decline in consumption of fish, whale, ringed seals and birds (the food that was reported to be in decline) resulted in a significant decrease in essential nutrient intake. Possible substitute foods were identified but some nutrients such as zinc and especially vitamin D were most often found lacking in the alternative diet. Conclusions: If the alternative species are not available or feasible, more expensive and less nutritionally dense store-bought foods may be sought. Given the superior quality of country foods and their association with food security, and Inuit cultural health and personal identity, developing skills and awareness for adaptation, promoting regional sharing networks, forming a co-management agency and continuing nutritional monitoring may potentially preserve the nutritional integrity of Inuit diet, and in turn their health and cultural survival.
Food systems primary goal should be to nourish human beings. And yet, the current industrial food system, with its profit-maximising ethos, is not achieving that goal despite producing food in excess. On the contrary, this system is the main driver of malnutrition on the planet, as well as environmental degradation. Nonetheless, food systems also play a double role as Nature's steward. Deciding which role we want food systems to play will very much depend on the idea we have about food. What is food for humans? The dominant narrative of the industrial food system undeniably considers food as a tradeable commodity whose value is mostly determined by its price. This narrative was crafted and disseminated initially by academics, who largely favoured one option (commodification of food) over the others (food as commons or public good). In this research, the author aims to understand how academia has explored the value-based considerations of food as commodity and private good (hegemonic narratives) compared to considerations of food as commons and public good (alternative narratives). A systematic literature review of academic papers since 1900 has been carried out with Google Scholar™, using different searching terms related to “food + commons”, “food + commodity”, “food + public good” and “food + private good”. Following the PRISMA methodology to clean the sample, a content analysis has been carried out with the 70 references including “food + commons” and “food + public good”. Results clearly show that both topics are very marginal subjects in the academic milieu (only 179 results before cleaning) but with a sharp increase in the eight years that followed the 2008 food crisis. On the contrary, “food + commodity” presents almost 50,000 references since 1900 (before cleaning), with a remarkable increase since the 1980s, coincidental with the dominance of neoliberal doctrines. The phenomenological approach to food (epitomised in the “food as” searching term) largely prevails over the ontological approach to food (“food is”) except when food is identified as a “private good”. This result points to the ontological absolute ”food is a private good” developed by the economic scholars as a dominant narrative that locked other valuations of food by legal, political or historical scholars or non-scientific epistemologies. In a world where the industrial food system has clearly proven its unfitness to feed us adequately in a sustainable way, the need for academia to explore other food valuations seems more urgent than ever. Scholars need to approach other narratives of food (as commons or public good) that go beyond the hegemonic and permitted ideas, unlocking unexplored food policy options to guarantee universal access to food for all humans, regardless their purchasing power, without mortgaging the viability of our planet.
The Indigenous food sovereignty (IFS) movement offers insight into food-related challenges that confront Indigenous Peoples in Canada. The philosophy of IFS is holistic in nature and sees food as encompassing all facets of being – the mental, emotional, spiritual, and intellectual. Thirty-two interviews were conducted across western Canada to better understand Indigenous food sovereignty practices. Indigenous research methodologies offer further insight into IFS studies, in part, through an epistemology centered on experiential knowledge, relational accountability, respect, and reciprocity. The values of these methodologies are reflected in this research regarding IFS, and provide an important and appropriate context for this work. In particular, metaphor, as a research tool, helps to further the understanding of IFS by acknowledging the harmony that can and should exist between food and nature.