June 21, 2024

Indigenous Food: Beyond June 21

A Conversation with Germaine Catchpole and Matt Johnstone

FoodShare’s Board Chair and Executive Director, Germaine Catchpole and Matt Johnstone, recognise that they are positioned as an Indigenous woman (Germaine is Anishinaabe from Lac Seul First Nation and a member of the Caribou clan) and a white man and settler (Matt was born and raised in Regina, Saskatchewan with Scottish and Irish ancestry and has close family who are Indigenous) to create dialogue between their communities on issues like mending relations, Indigenous leadership, allyship, decolonization, reIndigenization and more. 

In the time they have been working together (Matt’s role is guiding the day to day operations of FoodShare while Germaine heads up our volunteer board of directors alongside her work as a professional fundraiser and small food business owner) they have spent time in deep conversation, looking for ways to leverage each of their perspectives and worldviews, and their shared values, in support of FoodShare’s vision of a Toronto where everyone can feed themselves with dignity and joy. 

Given that it’s Indigenous History Month and that June 21 is National Indigenous Peoples Day we thought we’d share one of their conversations with the FoodShare community. In it, Germaine acknowledges the highs and lows of having her community spotlighted during the month of June and shares a list of some of her favourite Indigenous-owned food businesses in the Greater Toronto Area and across Ontario. 

Matt: So Germaine, how is your June going so far? You’re a small business owner, a working professional, and you head up our board on your personal time so I know that means you’re busy always, but I definitely get the sense that so much more is asked of you in June. 

Germaine: Honestly Matt, I’m exhausted. I always find myself torn between wishing we didn’t have to designate a specific month for Indigenous history and glad that there is time set aside to acknowledge my peoples’ contributions (and the impossible set of circumstances we have had to overcome). The truth is, I know there’s value in carving out time for people to learn, and those of us who are Indigenous certainly deserve some time to be recognized. 

Matt: Absolutely, but with that comes a lot of expectations on your time, energy, and labour I’m sure.

Germaine: (laughing) Ohhhhh yesss. It can be shocking really, just how little regard there can be. I run a small jam and preserves business… 

Matt: Shoutout to Mnopgwad Preserves!

Germaine: Ha! Thanks Matt. So, I’ll get people asking for 200 jars for next day delivery, “oh and will I come and speak to their office and can they get a bulk discount and this will be their Indigenous Peoples Day celebration…” Keep in mind that this email is coming in on June 18 at 7pm. I mean really. 

Or my spouse, who’s a chef, will get a request to cater a luncheon for 100 people and the budget they’ll offer is $10 per person; we couldn’t do toddler snack time for that kind of money. And he would probably not say anything–I don’t blame him, he’s booked and busy–but I usually aim to take the time to reply to those requests, because it feels like a teachable moment. I say (as diplomatically as I can) that “no, we can’t do it on that meagre budget. No, we can’t do it on that short notice and no, we’re not interested in doing this for social media clout or whatever.” It’s like, you’re reaching out to us, you’ve heard of us–what makes you think we need this so-called x.y.z that you’re offering? 

Matt: Hearing this I’m thinking about our amazing keynote speaker at our Annual General Meeting last week, Lydia Phillip, who spoke to the importance of resisting urgency culture and how closely that urgency is tied up in capitalism, patriarchy, and settler-colonialism. I hear all of those coming up when you describe the way a lot of these organizations, yes many of them corporates I’m sure, but some nonprofits as well, operate around issues of identity and engage with you during this time. There’s so much rush rush rush to do “the thing” whatever they think that is, for the sake of meeting a  perceived requirement. It’s a very… extractive sentiment… 

Germaine: Yes! Exactly. Like I’m a business owner, I WANT people to buy jam- that’s the whole point! But I’m not here to help institutions pat themselves on the back for their ‘reconciliation efforts’ when they are doing the bare minimum, and sometimes not even that. It’s important to me to collaborate with organizations and companies that are taking tangible steps toward being in good relationship. It can be large or small efforts, what matters is that there is thought and intentionality behind it. 

Take FoodShare’s four commitments to Truth and Reconciliation. They are simple but meaningful and, honestly, achievable as well. Having a permanent position for the Indigenous Community Action Coordinator, not applying for funding to take the lead on Indigenous programming or services, advocating for implementation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Calls to Action and the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Calls to Justice, as well as making June 21 [National Indigenous Peoples Day] and September 30 [National Day for Truth and Reconciliation] paid shutdown days for all staff. These are all good starting points. I feel like the shutdown days allow Indigenous folks to spend the day as they please or need to – like any other stat holiday– and non-Indigenous staff time to learn and hopefully even get out in their neighbourhood or on the land and develop some relationships with local Indigenous community members. 

Matt: It’s a starting point for sure. 

When we put out our statement this year for June 21 we made a point of taking a different tack than maybe we have in the past. It’s titled ‘Celebrating National Indigenous Peoples Day’ and focuses on the joy element of FoodShare’s approach to food justice: building a city where everyone can feed themselves, their loved ones, and their communities with dignity and joy. This choice of tone came from conversations between FoodShare’s Communications team and Indigenous Community Action Coordinator, Shar-Dey, and with you Germaine. I wonder if you could speak to that a bit, on why that felt important to you this year. 

Germaine: Yes, I felt it was important to update this and really focus on the difference between the intentions of June and September. For me, being Indigenous absolutely means being deeply impacted by colonialism and the Indian residential school system. My Dad survived not one but two different residential schools. We feel that in the bones of our family every day. 

But I also feel strongly we are more than what happened to us, and to our elders and ancestors. No, we can’t separate ourselves from what our people have been through, but we also shouldn’t stand for being reduced to the darkest moments of our history, and our pain. And it feels like, at FoodShare, we have this opportunity to shift the conversation to the joy piece. We’re always going to be about dignity. We’re always going to start every conversation with the fact that food is a human right and that we can’t stop until that right realised. But we can also make time for all of the ways that food brings us together, helps us share some of ourselves and connect with one another.  

My spouse, Charles, is a chef and farmer, and he’s often asked what Indigenous food was, before colonization. Firstly, it’s wild to me to think that it surprises people that our communities were flourishing in many ways, including food wise, before Europeans got here. Charles, who is  Anishinaabe and a member of Couchiching First Nation, was interviewed on radio some time last year and was asked about Indigenous food before Europeans arrived. I loved that he brought some of his trademark humour to the conversation, basically asking why people seem to think we were just standing on the shore “waiting for an ocean liner to show up with a delivery for us to eat”. Honestly sometimes being Indigenous in so-called Canada forces you to have a sense of humour about these things. 

Matt: Right, because clearly what Charles was saying there is that nobody was waiting around for anyone from the outside. Folks were here from time immemorial, feeding their communities from what the land had to offer and building on that with well-tested farming practices.  

Germaine: Exactly. And we’re still doing that. Even in our catering business or when it comes to making our preserves we’re always aiming to work with simple, wholesome ingredients that come from the land. There’s a lot of great energy these days going toward recapturing some of our ancestral practices including when it comes to cultivating and preparing food which makes me so happy to see. Because for a lot of us one of the many harms done by colonization was cutting us off from our traditional ways of growing and knowing.  As an Anishinaabe woman and the board chair at FoodShare I feel a big responsibility to ensure that I use my voice to shine a light on all of the cool stuff that is going on with Indigenous food. This isn’t history book stuff. We’re out here doing this right now. I want us to be able to celebrate all of that. But honestly it can be hard to feel like celebrating when you’re also dealing with some of the performative allyship I spoke a bit about earlier. 

Matt: For sure, it’s super clear how much responsibility you feel, which is another part of the problem right? That so few Indigenous people, and women in particular, are in positions of power and influence that it puts an added pressure on people like yourself. 

Germaine: Totally, thanks for acknowledging that. Listen, I do see more and more people, settlers I mean, who are trying to learn and to do better and that’s heartening. But there’s also a lot of box ticking: putting out orange posts with feather graphics feels reductive and honestly I, and I’m sure others, can always tell that an account or an organization or an individual is just Googling versus actually coming to us and being in real relationship. No, we aren’t here to be anyone’s free education resource but (while I’m only gonna speak for myself I have no doubt there are lots of other Indigenous folks in the food space who feel the same) if someone is coming to me to build meaningful networks and collaboration then I’m willing to lean in. Folks seem to talk a lot about us without us and it’s not a good way to do things. Talk TO us!  

Matt: You’re always so gracious with your time and your knowledge Germaine. But also, I don’t want to see folks take advantage of that and to think it’s your job to teach us how to behave or to be in relationship in a good way. But, knowing that you feel the responsibility you mentioned given your role, and that we have this platform to share I’m going to ask: how do you want to see folks showing up? What can those of us who are settlers do this National Indigenous Peoples’ Day, and beyond, to celebrate and honour Indigenous food culture?

Germaine: I like how you framed that Matt. I think it’s honestly about starting from the basics: listening and learning first before asking questions and demanding time and labour. There isn’t one “Indigenous” culture or food or dance or anything. Get out in your own area, learn who the first peoples are there and once you have actually invested some time and thought about learning about them, thennnn start finding ways to actually build relationships: more relational and less transactional. 

And of course… I almost said “it goes without saying” but it doesn’t: support Indigenous causes and advocacy 365 days a year, not just in June. Show up and stand up against boil water advisories and lack of clean water access. Show up for the Grassy Narrows folks- join their River Run. Show up and support your local strawberry ceremony. Demand we search the landfills for murdered Indigenous women. Be in solidarity with land defenders across the country. Just a few days ago the trial began for the three people criminalized for protesting the construction of a pipeline and exercising their Indigenous rights in Wet’suwet’en Nation. 

There’s no shortage of things that people can do, and that need doing. 

And absolutely another one is to support Indigenous folks’ work- artists, designers, jewellers, chefs, farmers. Just don’t try to order 200 jars of jam for overnight delivery! [laughs]

Matt: [laughs] Okay, so before we wrap up I want to ask you to put your food influencer hat on for a second…. can you share your top 3 favourite Indigenous makers or food businesses? 

Germaine: I can give you way more than three! In fact, since we’re doing this for the FoodShare blog I’ll send you a list of my favourites and you can share them on the website. But I’m sure I’d only be scratching the surface of what’s out there. 

Matt: That would be a great start. We can definitely crowdsource contributions to the list, and keep adding to it. 

Germaine: Okay awesome. Let’s do it! 

Indigenous-owned Food Business to Support All Year Long

More food businesses and initiatives you’d like to see on the list?