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Cultivating a spirit of truth and reconciliation [Jen Gamble, COABC]

BC’s agri-food sector is thriving. Our local food economy has been gaining ground in the hearts and minds of BC residents who recognize the value of purchasing food from close to home. As well, BC exports are enjoying increased demand abroad. The sector generated $12.3 billion dollars in 2014 and indications are that revenues will continue to grow.

This continued growth offers an opportunity to pause and reflect on the path that has led to our success. While agriculture is often a history of heroic individualism, this was not always the case. One often-overlooked factor is the acquisition of our land base.

Much of the land on which we produce the amazing BC fruits, vegetables and livestock that sustain our sector is unceded territory, meaning the land was never relinquished in a treaty process by the Indigenous inhabitants of what we now call British Columbia. This is a difficult part of our history. It is hard to accept that we are the benefactors of great wrongs, such as moving entire populations onto reserve land. However, in the spirit of truth and reconciliation, COABC is stepping forward to acknowledge this history and begin the process of addressing past wrongs.

COABC’s membership is diverse and includes farmers of First Nations heritage as well as farmers who are working to build close relationships with local First Nations. Reconciliation is near and dear to our hearts and many members devote considerable energy to this work in their communities. For us, the question is not whether we should redefine the relationships we have, but rather, how do we initiate a change?

We are committed to listening, learning and opening up space for Indigenous voices – in the BC Organic Grower and at our annual conference, for example. This year, the organic sector has chosen the theme Relationships in Transition for the 2017 BC Organic Conference in Nanaimo (Snuneymuxw).

At the conference, we’ll hear stories from keynote speaker Nicholas Peterson, a young First Nations leader and farmer from the Nicola Valley (Nlaka'pamux) as he speaks to the vital role farmers play in restoring relationships across humanity as we teach others and offer intimate experiences with food. The conference will also feature a roundtable discussion on sharing perspectives across cultures on Indigenous food and a workshop on Indigenous plant cultivation.

Small steps

On the ground, there are many small steps that the agriculture community can take, including learning the name of the territory in which we live, inviting territory elders to open events and officially welcome us to their territories, establishing an ongoing dialogue with local First Nations and learning about indigenous plants and how they can enrich our foodlands. Such steps will help us build more resilient communities and food systems.

Slowly, hopeful stories are beginning to appear at the grassroots level. Across BC, farmers are opening conversations with First Nations groups and innovative practices are emerging: in some cases, farmers have started cultivating native plants for production or as part of conservation zones. In others, we see farmers discussing potential foraging arrangements on their land so that First Nations can harvest traditional foods. Ranchers and First Nations communities in the Peace Region are building respectful relations around hunting on private lands.

The organic sector is also welcoming growing numbers of First Nations farmers, including the Tsawwassen Farm School, a partnership between Kwantlen Polytechnic University and the Tsawwassen First Nation. This first-of-its-kind school is open to all and fuses sustainable agriculture and traditional Indigenous food systems as tools to build community and create dialogue around land stewardship.

The federal Truth and Reconciliation Commission report states "Reconciliation requires that a new vision, based on a commitment to mutual respect, be developed.” As non-indigenous people, we may not know what needs to happen, so it is important to listen, learn and do our best to understand the Indigenous perspective of this land. This is within the power of each of us to do and by doing it as a sector, the impact is much greater. By acknowledging this history, we can begin to create a different relationship with the original people of this beautiful land that we all love and find solutions that work for everybody.

Learning is not new for the agriculture sector – we are innovators. Innovative thinking can help us turn away from the fear that is keeping us from moving forward. As we become more financially successful, let us also become morally successful by finding the courage to face the situation and do our best to listen, understand and make amends.

Jen Gamble is the executive director of operations for the Certified Organic Associations of BC.

CLBC March 2017

Vol.103 Issue 1

CLBC February 2017