Earth Workers, Not Farmers

illustration of cotton

by Hunter Cascagnette 

Today, small scale commercial farming and agriculture are seen as noble and romantic occupations. But farming across Kanata (Canada) continues to be another form of occupation of Indigenous lands. The rural Canadian landscape is dominated by European settler farmers. These rural farming settlements are breeding ponds for White Supremacy and, as we have recently been reminded through the acquittal of a White farmer in the murder of Cree youth, Colten Boushie, a place of impunity for White farmers who act out violence on the bodies and lands of Indigenous peoples. Throughout the colonial history of these territories, farming and conventional agricultural practices have been pushed on Indigenous communities as a strategy for assimilation, cultural genocide, control and manipulation of the land.

Throughout the 1800’s Agriculture was viewed by the Canadian Government as the best solution for changing a nomadic lifestyle based on subsistence and relationships to vast territories into one that is fixed in place. First Nations people proved themselves to be very successful farmers because of their long history of stewarding these lands alongside growing and harvesting traditional foods. The success of First Nations farmers provoked the state to develop policies intended to protect the interests of settler colonial farmers. Reserve farmland was divided into small 40 acres plots. The small farm plots were created in order to promote individualism, and to continue disrupting Indigenous tribal systems. This process also informed the amount of agricultural land on reserves that would be available for surrender to the Federal government since the Canadian government considered any unused or unallocated land as open for sale or lease to the European settlers.

The 1890s brought more restrictions on farming, and new powers for Indian Agents on the reserves. The Permit System was introduced, requiring Indigenous farmers to have documentation in order to sell produce or to buy equipment. The Permit System required all First Nations to obtain a permit from an Indian agent before they could legally sell their products off-reserve. The restriction prevented Indigenous farmers from competing in the Canadian economy. Local businesses were prohibited from purchasing products from any Indigenous people who did not have a permit. Most infractions by First Nations farmers centred on the enforcement of the Pass and Permit provision in the Indian Act, which prohibited the free flow of people, goods and services to and from reserves. Native people were turned away and faced criminal prosecution if they did not have the mandatory permits or passes. The permit system did irreparable harm to the emerging initiatives of Indigenous farmers. There are cases where crops and produce rotted in the fields because permits could not be obtained.

So much of the natural state of the lands across Turtle Island has been altered through the project of removing Indigenous people and putting land into the hands of pioneer farmers. Agricultural workers have drained ancient wetlands, rivers and streams, polluted ground water with chemical pesticides, disrupted countless ecosystems including old growth forests (around the Great Lakes largely leaving only maple trees because they were seen to have monetary value), severely decreased Indigenous plant species and tree diversity, flattened land, removed massive amounts of rocks and minerals, grown monocrop vegetables and grains, stripped the earth of nutrients and microbial communities, introduced invasive European plant species, and on and on.

The Holland Marsh is a heartbreaking example of the types of violence that have been acted out on the land in the name of agriculture. Located 50 km north of Toronto, this ancient marsh land spanned over 7000 acres and drains into Cook’s Bay, part of Zhooniyaagama (Lake Simcoe). It is no coincidence that this land is known as some of the most “fertile” soil in Canada. The Holland Marsh is a shallow water basin that was once covered by part of glacial Lake Algonquin, and as the lake level dropped, the land shifted and a marsh was formed that was home to countless natural relatives. This marsh provided Indigenous people of these lands such as the Wendat, with the sustenance they needed to survive and thrive. As European settlers started to occupy the area (first through hunting and fishing which started around 1825), the fate of this ancient marsh was forever changed. Around 1900, the Bradford Mattress Factory was clearing the marsh of grasses to use as stuffing for mattresses. Then, in 1904 Dave Watson a Bradford grocer, persuaded William H. Day professor of physics at the Ontario Agricultural College, Guelph, to explore the possibility of draining the marsh. In 1925, without any consultation with First Nations people, the project of draining the wetland began by putting in a canal and dikes 28 km long and 2 m deep around the marsh to divert the “Holland River.” Pumps were installed to control the water table within the dikes. The project was completed in 1930. Immediately afterwards, 18 Dutch families settled on the marsh which marked the beginning of an expanding agricultural community. It took about 500 years for 30cm of organic plant vegetation to accumulate over a layer of clay that lay in the marsh basin. And in only 100 years, we lost this rich, ecologically diverse and ancient wetland to the prioritization of White settlements and agricultural practices.

Another form of ongoing theft of Indigenous lands across Turtle Island that needs to be scrutinized is the “back to the land” or “queer land project” fantasy. White folks who aspire to live on land either collectively with their friends, or in a nuclear family through private purchase of land in order to take up a lifestyle that is attune with nature. Living “rurally” is imagined to be more authentic and less stress inducing than the grind of urban life. Oftentimes, these folks are interested in “land based skills” and (invisibilized) traditional Indigenous practices, such as practicing herbal medicine with plants from these territories, traditional basket making, making maple syrup, harvesting wild plants and foods Native to these lands, wild crafting, harvesting and processing animals that are from these lands, and small scale farming or gardening. Although they claim to be against systems that uphold private land ownership on stolen Native lands, I see “radical” White “settler allied” queer and cis-straight folks legitimize their desire to settle on Indigenous lands in the name of “permaculture”(a holistic approach to farming inspired by Indigenous land stewardship methodologies based on synchronicities in nature) or farming, or by indulging their White saviour complex. The rhetoric often used is that if folks can use their privilege to gain access to private lands, they will be better settlers than the ones before by engaging in more ethical farming and land stewardship practices or by being committed to “sharing” or at least philosophizing about eventually returning title to the land to Indigenous people. The desire to fulfill these “back to the land” fantasies, has nothing to do with Indigenous land sovereignty. How will these ongoing forms of White entitlement and monopoly of these lands truly be different from the legacy of earlier European settlers?

The current agricultural industry across Turtle Island has been built on stolen land, and the stolen labour of Indigenous, Black, Latinx, Asian and People of Colour who have been pushed out of the contemporary rural landscapes through the projects of White Supremacy and cultural genocide. If you want to be a good ally by means of using your privilege for others to gain access to land, there are many Indigenous, Black, and People of Colour networks and collectives where you can donate money and resources to support people in self-determining how they will access lands and build their own land based community healing initiatives. More White settlers having title, control and access to Native lands is not helpful, no matter how benevolent or exceptional you might think you are. If you are a White settler who indulges “back to the land” or “queer land project” fantasies, take a hard look at why you feel entitled to access even more Indigenous lands, trees, plants, medicines, waterways, traditions and land based skills.

As an insider-outsider, a mixed-race Indigenous & White person, I move through rural spaces with ease because of my White passing privilege, despite having to painfully witness all the ways that settlers continue to hold the land hostage for their profit. Over the past few years, I’ve been working to develop good relations with the settler colonial farmer community that I work wage labour in, to create space where Two Spirit people can be prioritized on land, and to engage local farmers in conversations about Indigenous histories of the territories, their treaty responsibilities and land ownership. In the lands where “Ste. Marie Among the Hurons” is a celebrated historical tourist attraction commemorating the first site of French Jesuit settlement, I am actively involved in staging a small intervention in the spirit of *returning*. Myself and another Two Spirit mixed-race Haudenosaunee earth worker steward gardens that are home to many Native plant medicines and foods. By planting traditional foods such as flint corn, Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee beans, Gete Okosomin and ancient longhouse squash, Seneca sunflowers, sunroots, as well as medicine plants like sweetgrass, traditional tobacco, stinging nettle, wild bergamot, wild ginger, globe thistle, echinacea, blue flag, etc, we are bringing these relatives back to the lands where our ancestors once lived off such sustenance.

As Indigenous people trying to heal our lands, and revive our traditional diets and relationships to the land, from the ceremony of seeding to harvest, we are not farmers, we are earth workers. We work for our mother, the earth. To restore our lands, our traditional roles, treaty responsibilities, and relationships to all of our relations- so that our food/ plant medicines – and all our non-human relatives – can return and prosper; to help the earth, waters and our people to heal.

White settlers should not be profiting economically or morally from continuing to privately own and control land as they engage in the wide appropriation of Indigenous knowledges, while Native people in Kanata have title to only 0.01 percent of these lands. The maple syrup industry is a relevant example, as it trivializes and exploits our sacred cultural relationships to maple trees for the economic gain and access of White settlers. Sugar bushing has been so widely appropriated and practiced by non-Natives that it is now proudly claimed to be part of “Canadian” culture. Sugar bushing was made to be hard work for our people, now plastic tubing is strung from tree to tree in order to streamline the gathering of sap, eliminating a relationship based on intimacy and gratitude. Before the War of 1812, a prophet came to the Shawnee people. He was the brother of Tecumseh, a courageous Shawnee leader and war chief. This prophet was called Tenskwatawa, ‘The Open Door.’ He spoke of how European traders were cheating the Anishinaabeg by giving them whiskey in order rob them. Tenskwatawa attempted to curb the production of sugar making because the people were making too much of it, to the point that they were spoiling the trees by cutting them too much. This was being done so that the Anishinaabeg could sell the excess to the non-Natives in order to trade for European goods and pay off debts to settlers. The Prophet and his brother Tecumseh saw this participation in the settler economy as detrimental to Native independence and wellbeing. The brothers led a cultural revival movement to regain the sovereignty, power and access to resources. The Prophet said that the Anishinaabeg must return to the ways of the forefathers and decline any products or tools of the whiteman. The following is an excerpt of his teachings in reference to maple sugar translated to English. Part of a talk delivered at Le Maiouitonong entrance of Lake Michigan on May 4th 1807:

My Children – I made all the Trees of the forest for your use but the Maple I love best because it yields sugar for your little ones. You must make it only for their use, but sell none of it to the Whites. Besides by making too much you spoil the Trees and give them pain by cutting & hacking them for they have a feeling like yourselves. If you make more than is necessary for your own use you shall die & the maple will yield no more water. If a White man is starving you may sell him a very little corn or a very little sugar but it must be by measure & weight. My Children – you are indebted to the White Traders but you must pay them no more than half their credits because they have cheated you. You must pay them in skins, guns, & canoes but not in meat, corn or sugar,” Tenskwatawa urged us not to participate in the colonial, capitalist economy or to exchange the medicines of our maples, as well as other sacred life sustaining foods with European settlers.

As my father’s family goes out for our annual hunt every fall and winter, we cross through one provincial park, three designated conservation areas (held as “crown land”), and dozens of cottage properties. Being a group of both status and non-status Wiisaakodewininiwag, as soon as we set out into the bush, we are considered trespassers. It is through our hunting, trapping and fishing practices that the men in my family understand their roles and responsibilities as Wiisaakodewininiwag. Without that connection to the land, we would be vert lost. It is through our resilience as a people that we navigate through these colonial borders to keep our culture and harvesting practices alive. At this time of supposed reconciliation between Indigenous people and Canadians, secure access to land for all Indigenous people (First Nations, Inuit, Métis, Status, Non-Status, Mixed Race, living on and off reserve, etc.) needs to be established. “Crown Land” (provincial park & “protected lands”) and privately owned lands held by White settlers, need to be rematriated and returned to Indigenous, Black, Latinx and POC communities and initiatives.

Updates on “Alliston” Aquifer water protection:

The existing Teedon pit quarry excavation site (site 42) in Tiny Township Ontario regularly removes gravel, sand, stone, and clay from “French’s Hill”. This is called aggregate mining. “French’s Hill” is part of the natural filtration system that cleans our local aquifer. Our local water (the “Alliston” Aquifer) has been tested as some of cleanest water in the world. By continuing to extract from French’s Hill they are weakening the natural filtration system which keeps the local aquifer so clean. Dufferin & Aggregates, an Ireland based company and division of CRH Canada, has a current water removal permit that expires mid April. Dufferin have applied for a new 10-year permit to continue to extract water for washing gravel. The company seeks to expand their operation and obtain another permit to take 1.6 million litres per day from a well and 5.2 million litres per day from a washing pond 210 days a year. The water underneath the Teedon pit is recognized as some of the purest water in the world. The existing quarry site was operating an illegal washing pond and only obtained a permit for the pond after it was discovered. Currently, the quarry site is also being used as an asphalt and concrete transfer station. This means large piles of asphalt (bitumen product) are sitting on the land, with no barrier between the asphalt and the ground to prevent contamination of the precious groundwater below. Local residents have been complaining that the “dewatering” being carried out by Dufferin is affecting the quality of their drinking water with cloudy water coming out of the taps. There are currently “community liaison” meetings happening about the renewal of Dufferin’s water removal permit but these meetings are not open to the public. There has been little to no consultation with local First Nations and Métis communities about the permit renewal. People living in the area do not know asphalt is being stored at the site. There is strong opposition to the permit renewal from local Beausoleil First Nation community members, Williams Treaty FN community members, local Métis community members, other local Indigenous community members, and settler residents. Site 42 is a few kilometres from Site 41, where a proposal to put a landfill on top of this same water was shut down in 2009 after many Indigenous people and supporters held a camp across the road from the site in opposition to the landfill. This aquifer is connected to the Waaseyaagami-Wiikwed (Georgian Bay), and the “Wye” and “Tiny” marshes (2 of Ontario’s largest wetland marsh conservation areas). It is our responsibility to protect and defend clean fresh water and all water. Fresh water is under continual threat across Turtle Island. Locally, we will continue doing ceremony for these waters and showing up outside closed meetings. An All Nations water ceremony led by Josephine Mandamin was held on Saturday April 14th at the Site 41 location. Hundreds of Indigenous people from across Turtle Island came together in ceremony to protect these waters. If you want to donate money toward local water defence organizing contact “Anishinabe Kwewag & Supporters” or “Friends of the Waverly Uplands” (make contact with Anne Ritchie; a trusted member of the local settler allied group) on facebook.

Hunter Devyn Cascagnette is a Two Spirit (of Trans experience) mixed-race Wiisaakode/ Michif-Anishinaabe & Euro settler person. An earth worker, hunter, and musician, building towards Two Spirit centric land, food, and plant medicine sovereignty and ecological restoration in their father’s Métis homelands of southern “Muskoka”. They are the co-founder and co-coordinator of a Two Spirit led sustenance sovereignty initiative called Sacred Seeds Collective (FKA Mno Wiisini Gitigaanan),located within Dish With One Spoon and Williams Treaty territory, connected to the sacred waters of Waaseyaagami-wiikwed (Georgian Bay).