Indigenous food sovereignty in action: A Q&A with Carl McCorrister of Peguis First NationJune 14, 2020
“We have taken much pride in our community garden initiative as a way of restoring our food sovereignty once again.”
Food is always more than just food. For Carl McCorrister, a retired school teacher, environmental advocate and member of the Peguis First Nation in northern Manitoba, food has the power to revitalize local traditions, improve his people’s health, and lessen the community’s dependence on expensive imported foods from the south.
So in 2008 he started a community garden.
“Our people took a big interest in our project. We gradually had more coming and helping and sharing in the harvest.”
But finding seeds adapted to the conditions of Peguis, 190 kilometres north of Winnipeg, was a challenge. That’s why two years ago Carl became a seed breeder. To that end, he started working with our Canadian seed program and the University of Manitoba.
Carl is now breeding a red potato that tastes good and grows well in his northern community. But for Carl, being able to grow this potato is about more than just tasty potatoes.
“We must begin to reclaim our heritage of growing and gathering our own foods once again. It is part of being a sustainable nation that can feed their people. It is part of the decolonization of our people,” says Carl.
“By producing a new potato in our community, we are reclaiming much of our food sovereignty that was lost through colonization.”
That’s what working toward food sovereignty is all about: communities choosing their own food and defining the ways it’s grown. This potato is just a small spud in the big picture.
Read the full interview with Carl below and learn more about why he is working for Indigenous food sovereignty and why it’s important for his community, Peguis First Nation, in particular.
[Editor’s note: the interview has been edited slightly for length and clarity.]
SeedChange (SC): After retiring from being a school teacher, why did you begin coordinating the Peguis Community Garden?
Carl McCorrister (CM): I always had it in my heart to return to the land and help my community and its people in some way. I witnessed over the years that many of our people did not farm or have gardens. This was always a big thing when I was growing up. We always had a large garden. It provided healthy foods and supplemented the income and food needs. I also noticed that many of our people were not eating healthy and there was an actual crisis in the health of our people with diabetes and other illnesses related to food security. With some wonderful people who also shared the same vision, we got three acres of land to use and decided to start a community garden.
This was in 2008. Our first year was very successful in raising potatoes, beets, beans, lettuce, carrots, squash, cucumbers, tomatoes, and onions. Our people took a big interest in our project and so we gradually had more coming and helping and sharing in the harvest. Many also decided to start their own gardens. Today, we have many of our people growing their own gardens and it continues to grow.
There have been many emotions over the years with this project. If one has worked in a large garden, you know there is lots of hard work to be successful. There was a struggle to get equipment and find the right workers. Through the years of our operation, we lost a few of our dedicated workers, one being Ernie Stranger (an elder who passed away) who worked on this project from day one. We also had some adverse weather, it being too cold, too wet, too dry, and early frosts. But we persevered, and after nine years, we have made our garden project one of the successes of the Northern Collaboration.
Much pride in this.
SC: Why is it important to you for your community to grow its own food?
CM: We must begin to reclaim our heritage of growing and gathering our own foods once again. It is part of being a sustainable nation that can feed its people. It is part of the decolonization of our people and regaining some form of independence that reflects our culture and heritage. A nation must also have food sovereignty – this means the power of self-government and authority over our land and resources.
SC: Why did you choose the potato for the breeding project?
CM: Two years ago, we had visits from a few people from universities who wanted to see what was happening with First Nation food security. One was Michelle Carkner, from the University of Manitoba. She shared about their seed program and we asked if we could be part of their program and try to grow our own potato.
We were given a choice of seeds, and decided that the main seed potato would be the red. This choice was because most of our gardeners liked the red potato and it grew well in our soils here. We also chose a few other potato seeds that were darker and also had good characteristics for our type of soil (peat based) and could be grown in 90 days.
After two years, we now have some seed that will be planted this final year of producing our own seed potato. It remains to be seen what the final result will be and what this potato will be like. We do hope to have a potato that can be boiled, fried and roasted. We know many of our people eat lots of potatoes and cook them this way.
It is exciting to be part of such a program and we are hopeful that we will have a great potato for our gardens that will produce a great product for Peguis people.
“By producing a new potato in our community, we are reclaiming much of our food sovereignty that was lost through colonization.”Carl McCorrister
SC: How does breeding a potato adapted to the land of the Peguis First Nation contribute to your work toward food sovereignty?
CM: By producing a new potato in our community, we are actually reclaiming much of our food sovereignty that was lost through colonization over the last few hundred years. Historically, the Government of Canada and the settlement of this country removed much of our food security. To get our people on to reserves, the great buffalo herds of North America were systematically slaughtered till only a few remained. At one time there were 100 million buffalo spread across this continent. This brought about the treaties and our people were moved onto reserves.
We had an agricultural base for hundreds of years before European settlement. Today we must reclaim our food sovereignty through use of land and regain our knowledge of growing our own foods. This potato project is just one part of this.
SC: Does having a potato adapted to the land fit into your advocacy on the protection of the environment?
CM: Producing our own potato is one part of regaining food sovereignty for our people. We also are taking steps to do other things that can help this process. We also are going to try growing moss berries as part of another program headed by Agriculture Canada and the Experimental Research Centre in Portage La Prairie. We hope to cultivate these berries within the next few years. I also am working with another person at the University of Manitoba to grow five acres of perennial wheat (Kernza) on my own property. This wheat will grow every year after it is planted and produce wheat that could be made into high grade flour.
We also grow organically, not using any pesticides or fertilizer to date. We are aware of climate change and so try to do our part in protection of Mother Earth and water. The vision is to regain our food sovereignty and the right to produce our own foods to become a nation that will serve its people.