Chief Byron isofar

Keynote presentation by Chief Byron Louis at the “Empowering Indigenous Communities and Seeding Agricultural Resilience by Revitalizing Indigenous Food Plant Production” transformative workshop. Left to right: Chief Byron Louis, Okanagan Indian Band; Emily McAuley,Indigenous Liaison Scientist at Indigenous Support and Awareness Office; Jennifer Edwards, Science Program Analyst; and Dr. Brian Gray, Assistant Deputy Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada for Science and Technology.


This article explores the linkage between Indigenous cultivation principles and agroecology as a beginning for the development of an alternative agriculture and food system in Canada. We hope that it will provide a context for dialogue and change.

As of 2016, Indigenous Peoples represent 4.9% of the total Canadian population and manage reserve lands with an area of more than 3.5 million hectares. Locally harvested traditional foods are central to the cultural, spiritual, and physical health of Indigenous Peoples and communities. Access to traditional food has been hindered by many aspects of colonization including changes in land use designations, habitat loss, local extirpations, limited access to suitable land, the arrival of invasive pest and disease species, cross-pollination with commercial crops, the loss of traditional knowledge and the transition to a western diet. Additionally, most traditional foods are only accessible in certain geographic regions and climatic areas; however, Indigenous Peoples have been removed from their traditional territories and the traditional foods located therein, due to generations of relocation through government policies, including the reserve system and Indian act, residential schools, and adoptions, as well as increasing numbers in urban centres. Knowledge of traditional foods have also been eroded through decades of cultural displacement due, in part, to such relocations, but also due to legislation outlawing traditional practices, knowledge sharing and language.


In addition, lack of access to traditional food and changes in lifestyle have contributed to higher levels of chronic respiratory disease, diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease among Indigenous Peoples than among the general

Canadian population. Many Indigenous communities are looking for ways to revitalize traditional lifestyle practices. Supporting Indigenous communities in managing their lands and promoting traditional foods production on their lands can greatly improve health, food security and sovereignty, employment opportunities and the economy in these communities and in Canada. It is also worth bearing in mind that Indigenous Peoples were the custodians and managers of biodiversity in what is now Canada for thousands of years, and their traditional knowledge of stewardship and cultivation of plants and animals may help today’s society deal with some of the negative consequences of contemporary industrial agriculture and climate change. This article explores the linkage between Indigenous cultivation principles and agroecology as a beginning for the development of an alternative agriculture and food system in Canada. We hope that it will provide a context for dialogue and change.


Indigenous Cultivation and Agroecology

About 550 different species of plants have been utilized in the traditional diets of Indigenous Peoples in Canada, which generated a wealth of ecological traditional knowledge amongst them. Ecological traditional knowledge, as described by Fikret Berkes (1999), is a knowledge-practice-belief complex with four interrelated levels: (i) knowledge based on empirical observations essential for survival (species taxonomy, distribution, and life cycles); (ii) understanding of ecological processes and natural resource management (practices, tools, and techniques); (iii) socio-economic organization necessary for effective coordination and cooperation (rules and taboos); and (iv) worldview or ‘cosmovision’ (religion, belief, and ethics). Indigenous Peoples in Canada have a long history of effectively managing food plant production and plant habitats using practices such as succession, regeneration, selective harvesting, pruning/coppicing berry bushes, controlled burn, habitat creation, and distributed use and harvest across landscapes and over time (seasonal rounds). Their social management strategies such as proprietorship, socially determined conservation, distributed seasonal access to resource areas, trade and exchange, feasting and sharing, and knowledge transmission enabled them to create and manage an efficient ecological food system.


Indigenous cultivation practices are intimately tied to agroecology and organic farming as they are based on the following common principles and values:


  • Environmental sustainability, food security, self-sufficiency, stewardship, and food sovereignty;
  • Subsistence-based model that requires resource conservation, preservation, and ethical management of the natural resource base;
  • Mobilization of non-formal (and sometimes non-Western) knowledge that is often passed from one generation to the next through oral traditions;
  • The use of local, context-specific, and place-based knowledge (and various forms of adaptation to environmental conditions and available resources) when engaging in agroecological practices. This principle stands in stark contrast to the elements of the “one-size-fits-all” model of contemporary industrial agriculture;
  • The use of the entire subsistence base (and not just the agricultural plot) in establishing the biosystem in agroecology and Indigenous cultivation. Viewed through this lens, Indigenous agroecological practices must be understood in relation to their dimensions of social organization and social relations of production (it is a participatory enterprise that involves the entire community); and,
  • A respectful and non-exploitative relationship to the land, which is often viewed in sacred and spiritual terms as a provider of all the necessities of life for plants and animals.

When thinking about the intersections between Indigenous cultivation and agroecology, the community’s relationship to the ecosystem is worth emphasizing. Indigenous communities have co-evolved with their ecosystems and have generated a vast amount of intergenerational traditional knowledge that is now used in their cultivation practices. Indigenous cultivation and agroecology are frequently defined by their holistic qualities in which they imitate the natural environment, and the use of this method sometimes leads to the reduction of labour intensity and increases in plant productivity. Specifically, some of the agroecological characteristics of Indigenous cultivation include:

  • Favourable rates of return on labour inputs/outputs due to the efficiency of the synergisms derived from the natural environment;
  • Balanced nutrient flows that are achieved through intercropping, rotational cropping, and interplanting practices, which enrich the soil with organic matter;
  • A biosphere that supplies natural pest control. The use of polycultures often replaces the need for agrochemicals because they serve as hosts to natural predators resulting in a more balanced micro ecosystem than those that monocultures are able to offer. Other methods of pest control include manipulating plot size, location, crop density, and crop diversity.
  • Managing plant disease by incorporating organic matter into soil, making use of shade, and mobilizing the use of antagonistic plants (trap plants), as well as leaving fields fallow (in combination with rotations) and using flooding, fire and heat to eliminate disease.

Indigenous agroecology is an opportunity for informing and generating innovation in contemporary agricultural practices.


Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada Activities for Supporting Indigenous Cultivation


The Government of Canada is committed to advancing reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples through a renewed, nation-to-nation, Inuit-Crown and government-to-government relationship based on the recognition of rights, respect, cooperation and partnership; enhanced departmental capacity and Indigenous representation; and inclusive policies and programs. Through increasing awareness and greater appreciation of traditional methods and fostering partnerships with Indigenous communities, some of the potential benefits of AAFC’s programs for Indigenous communities include increased food security, revitalization of Indigenous agricultural practices, revival of traditional knowledge systems, and empowerment of Indigenous businesses. AAFC has recently initiated, developed, and implemented several activities and programs to support Indigenous agriculture.



In 2018, AAFC launched the Indigenous Agriculture and Food Systems Initiative (IAFSI), a five year (2018-19 to 2022-23), $8.5 million Initiative that will support Indigenous communities that seek opportunities in agriculture and the food system more broadly. This Initiative is implemented with support from the Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada (CIRNAC) through the Strategic Partnerships Initiative (SPI). Through the IAFSI, AAFC aims to contribute to the Government of Canada’s commitment to reduce barriers for underrepresented groups and focus on building Indigenous Peoples’ capacity to succeed in agriculture. The Initiative also supports the development of partnerships between federal and non-federal partners, including Indigenous communities, provincial/territorial governments, and the private sector.


AAFC also launched an Indigenous Pathfinder service in 2018. This is a one-stop shop for advice and referral to help Indigenous Peoples and communities navigate the relevant information, tools and support available to start

or expand activities in the agriculture and agri-food sector.


In October 2017, AAFC officially established an Indigenous Support and Awareness Office (ISAO), to enhance departmental capacity to support Indigenous cultivation by enhancing knowledge and awareness of the history, cultural contexts, and current barriers and opportunities for Indigenous cultivation through the development of an Indigenous Awareness Learning Series (IALS). The ISAO is also mandated to increase recruitment and retention of Indigenous employees, including by supporting the activities of the Indigenous Student Recruitment Initiative (ISRI), Indigenous Network Circle (INC) for employees, and the departmental Elder.


The ISRI gives Indigenous students experience and knowledge of the variety of careers available at AAFC and within the Public Service more generally, and encourages them to pursue an education and career in the sciences. Through the ISRI, AAFC has met with over 3,500 high school and post-secondary Indigenous students across the country. In 2016, the first year of the ISRI, 21 summer students were hired. This grew to 55 Indigenous students in the summer of 2017, and 65 in the summer of 2018. Many ISRI students also stay on part-time throughout the school year.


AAFC Elder, Mervin Traverse, started in September 2016. AAFC is the first federal department to have a full-time Elder on staff. The Elder acts as the primary departmental liaison with Indigenous communities and provides support to the ISRI and INC, as well as build stronger cultural awareness within the Department.

The ISAO houses the Indigenous Liaison Scientist, whose role is to facilitate science collaborations between Indigenous partners, AAFC researchers, and external experts to explore ways to support Indigenous-led and defined participation in Canadian agriculture and to develop synergisms between Indigenous knowledge and western science.



AAFC also supports several Indigenous science projects:


Living Laboratories – Typically situated on privately owned land or, in this case, land held in trust by the government of Canada with First Nations people control, a Living Laboratory functions as a local innovation hub, where various participants explore, demonstrate, and adapt beneficial management practices and technologies within a working agricultural landscape. The Living Laboratory initiative will establish a national network of Living Laboratories situated in a variety of production systems and landscapes across Canada, including First Nations’ lands. The establishment of the network will allow for the development of comparative studies, cross-sectoral collaborations, and sharing of lessons learned.


Three Sisters Project – Science and Technology Branch (STB) research to broaden the ancestral characteristics of maize, squash, and beans (traditionally called the “Three Sisters”) to enhance the self-sufficiency of Indigenous communities and to develop a traditional polyculture cropping system in support of Indigenous food security. This collaborative research project could lead to improvements in the health outcomes of Indigenous communities, enhance agricultural land use in Indigenous communities, and facilitate the creation of local, community, and private Indigenous businesses.


Lingonberries project – An STB research project on the genetic and climatic conditions affecting lingonberry cold-hardiness and antioxidant content. This project explores how lingonberries, which are endemic to Canada and are a traditional food plant for many Indigenous groups, can be integrated into a supply food chain that would to engage Indigenous communities and establish partnerships with university, government, NGOs, and industry groups. The demand for lingonberries currently outstrips the supply from wild harvest; thus, there is a market opportunity for Canadian producers that could financially benefit Indigenous communities.


Labrador Tea project – STB research in collaboration with an industrial partner to carry out a controlled extraction of Labrador tea. Labrador tea grows wild in most regions of Canada and a number of Indigenous peoples use the infusion as a traditional medicine. In the short-term, a concentrate and a freeze-dried tea extract will also be produced on a pilot-scale for commercial operation purposes. In the longer term, the company plans to have its own facilities and become an autonomous producer.


STB Transformative Workshops - In recent years, STB carried out several transformative workshops related to Indigenous cultivation. The Empowering Indigenous Communities and Seeding Agricultural Resilience by Revitalizing Indigenous Food Plant Production workshop encompassed an STB initiative to capitalize on the collective expertise and creativity of leading government and academic researchers and First Nations Traditional Knowledge holders, community members, and leaders to identify the potential for collaboration on traditional foods production, and specifically, bridging Indigenous Traditional Knowledge and AAFC research. The 2017 Transformative Workshop on Vertical Farming, which was initially held as a general workshop 2016, focused specifically on northern greenhouses.



Dr. Mehdi Sharifi, Summerland Research and Development Centre, Science and Technology Branch, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. ;

Dr. Konstantin Petoukhov, Indigenous Support and Awareness Office, Science and Technology Branch, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada,This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. :

Emily McAuley, Indigenous Support and Awareness Office, Science and Technology Branch, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. ; and,

Jill Hull, Indigenous Support and Awareness Office, Science and Technology Branch, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.