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From Volume 11 (2017).

The four pillars of food security identified by the World Summit on Food Security in Rome 2009, as availability, access, utilization and stability, are helpful guides to examining the experiences of Indigenous peoples1 food security and food sovereignty and the consequences of European and settler colonialism in Canada.2 As Orford notes, “The first European colonial settlers came from societies which were ‘constantly on the edge of famine and demographic collapse’, and the liberal theories that justified their appropriation of the ‘waste lands’ occupied by hunter-gathers were an attempt ‘to save the lives’ of Europeans.”3

Modern humans (Homo sapiens sapiens) appeared in North America during the Wisconsin glaciation, 50,000-10,000 BP.4 As cultural development increased in the Americas, numerous Indigenous peoples, communities and then nations began to occupy and shape the lands of what is now Canada. Indigenous peoples believe this is the land of their origins and recount in their many and varied myths and cosmological theories, descriptions of their sacred and practical ancestral relationships to the lands and resources. Archaeological evidence indicates food resources were copious; big game abounded, fish were plentiful and foraging technologies for land and sea evolved quickly.5 “Traditional Indigenous economies have tended to involve the simultaneous and proximal use of multiple resources on a subsistence basis, rather than the intensive, isolated, single resource use that characterizes industrial capitalist economies.”6

Nicolas Denys, a French explorer and merchant, accompanied Issac de Razilly who was commissioned by Cardinal Richelieu in 16327 to be the lieutenant-general of Acadia, a colony of New France in northeastern North America. Their mission was to establish colonies for France in the territories of the Mi’kmaq, Maliseet, Abenaki and Passamaquoddy8 Denys’ writings depict the time of early, but sustained, European incursions and settlement into long occupied Indigenous territories. His publications remark extensively on the availability, access, utilization and stability of sustenance resources and health characteristics of the Indigenous peoples he encountered:

They still lived long lives. I have seen Indians of a hundred and twenty to a hundred and forty years of age who still went to hunt the Moose…Their subsistence was of fish and meat roasted and boiled…All the children do their cooking like the others. All these kinds of roasts were only an entrée to arouse the appetite; in another place was the kettle, which was boiling. This kettle was of wood, made like a huge feeding trough… for making them they employed stone axes, well-sharpened. … They always had a supply of soup, which was their greatest drink. Their greatest task was to feed well and to go a hunting. They did not lack animals, which they killed only in proportion as they had need of them. They often ate fish, especially Seal to obtain the oil, as much for greasing themselves as for drinking; and the Whale which frequently came ashore on the coast, and on the blubber of which they made good cheer. Their greatest liking is for the grease; they eat it as one does bread, and drink it liquid…They drank only good soup, very fat. It was this which made them live long and multiply much.9 

Across the expanse of North America Indigenous peoples developed diverse and sophisticated farming, hunting and foraging strategies that richly influenced their cultural, political, legal and economic structures, well in advance of the arrival of settlers. Some communities were highly nomadic covering large territorial ranges on foot, hunting and fishing on a seasonal basis at known locales. Others, living in environments that allowed for horticulture (usually maize, beans, and squash), aggregated and were more sedentary. Indigenous peoples’ collective ingenuity and knowledge of their ecosystems enabled them to survive and often thrive for thousands of years. Extensive trade networks supported livelihood patterns. Their skill and acquaintance with traditional ecological knowledge and subsistence technologies facilitated the survival of the early settlers and the emergence of the dominance of a Eurocentric nation-state.10

The history and experiences of colonialism are as diverse as the peoples upon which colonial policies and laws were imposed. In the Atlantic region of North America Indigenous peoples felt the pressures of newcomers on their subsistence endowments as French and then British penetrations into their territories resulted in the misappropriation of Indigenous lands and resources for reallocation to settlers. Traditional broad-based diets, drawn from seasonal exploitation of both marine and land resources, required access to coastal regions. Settlers displaced Indigenous peoples from the coasts, cutting them off from important nutritional foods, especially seals, eels and other culturally significant marine foods, forcing them to rely on the less predictable fallback foods of the interior. Indigenous communities suffered rapid population declines due to European borne epidemics and warfare. Emerging food scarcity heightened loss of life through starvation.11