Introduction to Food Sovereignty with Professor Gabrielle Doreen

Interview conducted by Sarah Nixon, McGill Faculty of Law student

Iakotennikonhrare iontátia’ts. Kenhtekehró:non tanon kanien’kehá:ka niiakaonhontsò:ten. Iakoniáton. Iontaterihón:nion onkwehónwe’neha tsi McGillhne ionteweienstakwa’kó:wa.

Gabrielle Doreen is from Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory and she is Kanien’kehá:ka. She is turtle clan and teaches a land-based education course on Indigenous food sovereignty at McGill University. Gabrielle has earned her Masters from the University of Saskatchewan focusing on Indigenous Land-Based Education. Gabrielle is a mother of four sons and has one grandchild. In her spare time, she likes to garden, kayak, bead, and make corn husk dolls. She was kind enough to sit down with me to discuss Indigenous food sovereignty, in a conversation that formed the basis of this piece.

Food sovereignty is a term first used by international peasants’ organization La Via Campesina in the 1990’s. At the Forum for Food Sovereignty in Mali in 2007, the Nyéléni Declaration enshrined a formal definition for food sovereignty as “the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems.”[1] However, Professor Doreen reminds us that “it’s a new term, but it’s something that we [Kanien’kehá:ka people] have always done, so it’s not really new to us, it’s just putting it in a way that is recognizable to the outside world.”

One useful way to understand food sovereignty is by juxtaposing it with food security. Food security emphasizes state-based solutions to the unreliability of food sources, with the goal of ensuring access to food. Food security has been criticized for its failure to address root causes of food insecurity, especially by supporting transnational corporations to the detriment of small-scale farmers.[2] Professor Doreen noted that for many Indigenous peoples, state-based food security solutions are associated with the provision of low-quality and low-nutrition foods – including what are sometimes called “the five white sins: sugar, potatoes, milk, rice, and flour.” Indigenous peoples in Canada continue to suffer disproportionately high rates of illness and disease tied to the unavailability of healthy foods.[3]

In this context, food sovereignty offers a critical alternative approach. This approach emphasizes reclaiming ownership over food production, learning about and making accessible means of procuring and producing food locally, and connecting reclamation of food systems to the broader project of decolonization. As Professor Doreen put it, “Indigenous food sovereignty [has a] fluidity to it, it’s a movement. It’s a way of thinking, and a way of doing, and a way of being and a way of knowing, whereas food security is just enforcing that the people have food to eat.” While describing Indigenous food sovereignty, Professor Doreen also stressed that there is no uniform way to practice it. Instead, approaches to food sovereignty are “very place-based: it’s going to look different based on the landscape that the food is coming from, the people’s needs in that landscape, and the people’s connections to the food systems in that place.”

At present, Canadian law creates impediments to the practice of food sovereignty, as well as potential opportunities to support its practice. Professor Doreen pointed to a variety of laws that prevent Indigenous peoples from practicing food sovereignty. For example, in British Columbia, fire regulations have impeded the traditional practice of controlled burns, exacerbating wildfires that have destroyed berry patches.[4] In Québec, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food enforces a complex and expensive permitting system that must be successfully navigated in order to earn a livelihood off of food.[5] Provincial government subsidization also favours large-scale corporate agriculture, monoculture, and export-oriented production over small-scale local initiatives.[6]

At the same time that Canadian law operates to impede Indigenous food sovereignty, treaty rights offer a basis for its realization. “It all comes down to our treaty,” Professor Doreen explained.[7] John Borrows has explored the power of treaties to support Indigenous sovereignty, as constitutionally entrenched agreements foundational to the existence of the Canadian state.[8] The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous peoples also recognizes Indigenous rights to “own, use, develop and control” traditional lands and resources. [9] These rights can be seen as providing a framework for the implementation of food sovereignty.[10] Although UNDRIP is a non-binding declaration, it presents an influential basis upon which food sovereignty claims can be advanced. At the same time, modifying Canadian law is not necessarily a primary focus of the food sovereignty movement. “I’m very skeptical of relying on government to make legal changes. I think that they just need to make space,” said Professor Doreen.

Food sovereignty practitioners continue to reclaim this space by renewing traditional food practices, including spearfishing, collecting of berries, and seed saving. When asked about how Indigenous food sovereignty can be supported in the urban context, Professor Doreen pointed out that maple trees can be tapped, nuts and berries can be collected, and community garden plots can be established. In particular, she said she would like to see a community plot on McGill campus where the Three Sisters (the Haudenosaunee term used for corn, beans, and squash) could be grown alongside traditional medicines. Professor Doreen also advocated “paying attention and being observant of change, and how these changes are effecting the whole system” as a form of food sovereignty practice that could be undertaken in the urban context. “People think that you have to go out on the land to be connected to the land and connected to these food systems, when the land is right here: we still have trees, we still have the birds, we still have medicines growing, we still have grass, everything is here that we should be paying attention to, but we don’t because we think it’s somewhere else,” she said.

I concluded our interview by asking Professor Doreen what she would like future jurists to keep in mind. She had this to say: “Be aware that food sovereignty and food politics are real. When you think about who says what you can put into your body, and how that can be produced, and how that can be managed, and who is in charge of those systems, it’s a real thing. [Future jurists] need to realize and recognize that. It all comes back to our treaties and our right to live off the land.”


[1] “Declaration of the Forum for Food Sovereignty,” Nyéléni Village, Mali, 2007.

[2] Charlotte Coté, “‘Indigenizing’ Food Sovereignty: Revitalizing Indigenous Food Practices and Ecological Knowledges in Canada and the United States” (2016) 57:5 Humanities 1 at 7. (doi: 10.3390/h5030057).

[3] Ibid at 5.

[4] Yadav Uprety et al, “Contribution of Traditional Knowledge to ecological restoration: Practices and applications” (2012) 19:3 Écoscience 225 at 232 (doi: 10.2980/19-3-3530); Wildfire Regulation, BC Reg 38/2005, 2005, s. 23(1).

[5] Sam Grey & Lenore Newman, “Beyond culinary colonialism: Indigenous food sovereignty, liberal multiculturalism, and the control of gastronomic capital” (2018) 25 Agriculture and Human Values 717 at 724 (doi: 10.1007/s10460-018-9868-2); this claim is also based on research into the permitting process for Québec artisans carried out for McGill’s Food and Agriculture Law Clinic in conjunction with Union Paysanne.

[6] Bryan Dale, “Food Sovereignty Struggles in Quebec: Co-Optation and Resistance” in Annette Aurélie Desmarais et al, eds, Public Policies for Food Sovereignty (New York: Routledge, 2017) 126 at 129-30.

[7] Lee Maracle, My Conversations with Canadians (Toronto: Book Thug Publications, 2017) at 11.

[8] Lecture by John Borrows, “Drawing Out Law” (25 June 2015) Faculty of Law, University of Victoria.

[9] United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, 2007, Article 26.

[10] Joni Adamson, “Seeking the corn mother: transnational indigenous organizing and food sovereignty in Native North American literature” in Elvira Pulitano, ed, Indigenous Rights in the Age of the UN Declaration (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012) 228 at 233-34.

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