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Chef Johl Whiteduck Ringuette on Indigenous food sovereignty

Anishnawbe and Algonquin chef Johl Whiteduck Ringuette discusses Canada's dark past and his hopes for a future with Indigenous food sovereignty. 

Chef Johl Whiteduck Ringuette Indigenous food sovereignty | Bickford park community garden with Pauline Shirt mural

On finding a purpose

When I moved to Toronto from North Bay 30 years ago, I couldn’t find my Indigenous community. My medicine teacher told me I had a gift to bring back the Anishnawbe food diet. I didn’t know how I was going to do this, but I had faith. I started a catering business and when my kids were grown up, I risked it all and opened my restaurant, NishDish, focusing on traditional Anishnawbe food. Then, I founded the Ojibiikaan Indigenous Cultural Network so we could expand our Indigenous teachings and gardens in the city.

On the meaning of Indigenous food sovereignty

All people have a right to know what their food heritage is. When you take away the land and you steal every child out of every single Indigenous community and you force them to go to residential schools that eradicate their language – the last of which closed in 1996 – then their food systems die with that. Indigenous food sovereignty is about restoring our traditional food knowledge.

On the end of Indigenous food lines

We were forced to stay in reserves. If you have, say, 300 people on a reserve, you can’t all hunt in that one area because the animals won’t be there. There was an intention to eradicate our food lines. Then the government said they were going to bring us food, but it was all sugar, salt, flour – processed foods. If you force a group of people to live on a food they've never eaten before, they're going to end up with major dietary problems. They wanted Indigenous people to assimilate by getting us dependent on new food sources and when those rations are taken away entirely, that’s genocide, not assimilation. We couldn't live the way we wanted to, the way we knew and the way that was healthiest for us.

Indigenous food sovereignty | Chef Johl Whiteduck Ringuette

Chef Johl Whiteduck Ringuette

On restoring Indigenous food lines

Now we have to go back and find out what our food lines were. Corn, for example, was one of the main staples of food. It was good, healthy and fibrous. Now, corn has become GMO and it’s unhealthy. And it’s not the corn my community ate. So if we're talking about Indigenous food sovereignty, we can't just throw any corn on the table. You really have to search for Indigenous corn – we have the seeds and we grow it in gardens, but it's not enough to feed all the Indigenous people here. We're trying to regrow our food lines, and that's been my journey, establishing what our food lines were and making them sustainable.

On hopes for the future

More people are coming forward and opening their hearts to the understanding of the true history of Canada. It’s such a hopeful time, because people no longer accept the way that Indigenous people have been treated and they want to do things differently now. There are opportunities for Indigenous placemaking with murals and gardens that bring us back to the land.

On the future of NishDish

We're going to come back, just not as a restaurant. We're going to be a marketeria and we will continue to do catering. I’m going to expand the marketeria so you can come in and do a First Nations food shop – a grocery store with Indigenous food products.

To help NishDish work towards Indigenous food sovereignty, donate at gofundme.com/f/nishdish-contingency

Check out other guest columns from some of Toronto's leading chefs and bartenders, like this conversation with Guy Rawlings about why sustainability isn't just a trend, or Christina Viera on racism in hospitality

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