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On ‘Canadian’ Co-opting Of Indigenous Food

Kekuli Café’s cheeky signage uses humor to subvert stereotypes. Via Kekuli Café.com

By Guest Contributor Kelly Reid

Foodies that follow culinary trends in cities such as Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver have likely noticed of late a proliferation of restaurants that bill themselves as “Canadian.” Maple, bacon, and poutine occasionally crop up, but the upscale iterations especially show an interest in game meats, cured fish, bannock, berries, and an overall inclination towards Indigenous preparations and ingredients. The restaurants tend to fall into one of two factions: first, those that align themselves with the First Nations community and thus acknowledge the cuisine as Aboriginal.

For example, Salmon n’ Bannock in Vancouver, Kekuli Café in Westbank, and the now-closed Keriwa Café in Toronto. The second group is those that do not show alliance with any First Nations community and tend to dub their cuisine “Canadian.” Is the latter group’s co-opting of these preparations simple cultural osmosis, or does it speak to a larger and more troubling trend of mining Indigenous communities for the latest trend du jour?

Kekuli Café’s Indian Taco

Some may argue that focusing on “Canadian” ingredients such as caribou, bison, salmon, and the like is nothing more than ecological ethics. Locavorism has seen increased support over recent years, and many people believe that eating what’s seasonal, sustainable, and close is the socially conscious choice. But this argument over-simplifies a complex history of oppression that Indigenous communities have faced in Canada. Sure, the ingredients are local. But to call them “Canadian” makes a gross omission that the land itself was and continues to be colonized. Communities have subsisted on these foods for thousands of years before Canada was even a nation.

The fetishization of Indigenous culture that goes hand-in-hand with the food trend is also problematic. Many dishes tend to use only pre-contact ingredients, as though the cuisine of First Nations is somehow frozen in the past. There’s a disturbing cultural ideal of the Indigenous community as unchanging, and that Indigenous folks are no longer “authentic” if they embrace change and modernity.
Romanticizing pre-contact food in this way affords diners nothing more than a very shallow experience with indigeneity, and ultimately exacerbates the problem of exoticizing First Nations.

Canoe’s Nunavut Caribou Hind, with Foie Gras Tourtiere

Finally, there are the lived realities of Indigenous communities in Canada that are facing impoverishment, malnutrition, and starvation. If charging exorbitant sums for Indigenous foods provides economic clout to those communities, then that serves a purpose. But many restaurants have no accountability — economic or otherwise — to the communities that inspire them. Certainly, this isn’t to say that every restaurant owes alms to the people that struggle outside its doors. But the disavowal of the colonial realities of Canada and its First Nations folks is part of an ongoing trend of effacing indigeneity from the settlers’ cultural consciousness.

Despite these very real quandaries, food is meant to be shared and enjoyed and is often done so across cultures. This land, and the Indigenous communities that inhabit it, offer some delicious bounty. Below, some tips on how to — or how not to — participate in the feast.

  1. Do blend pre- and post-contact ingredients, à la Keriwa Café’s bison burger on Red Fife bannock. Red Fife wheat was introduced to Canadian soil via Scotland in the mid 19th century, and the species is now recognized as a heritage wheat. Indigenous game meat on a (relatively) recent grain recognizes the continuous change that First Nations communities and their food undergo, and does away with stereotypes of authentic indigeneity as being static and in the past.
  2. Don’t just throw words around. For instance, Restaurant La Traite in Wendake, PQ offers a “Tipi of First Nations smoked salmon” to capitalize on this fetishized symbol of indigeneity. Never mind that the Huron-Wendat Nation of the area traditionally lived in longhouses or small wigwams rather than tipis. La Traite also boasts on its desserts a “First Nations coulis,” whatever that means. (It sounds disconcertingly cannibalistic).
  3. Humour as a means of resistance. As Cherokee Nation member and First Nations advocate Thomas King wrote in Me Funny, “We say of Native humour that it’s about survival, that the only way Native people have been able to endure the array of oppressions that have been visited on us is through humour. And we say that Native humour is about community.” The Kekuli Café — owned and operated by members of indigenous communities — has adopted this tack. The café in Westbank, BC proudly proclaims, “Don’t panic … We have bannock!” It also advertisse their Indian Tacos by writing, “Not just served at Pow Wows anymore!” Last year, Kekuli won the Food & Beverage Award from the Aboriginal Tourism Association of British Columbia, as well as the Aboriginal Key Business Award from the Westbank-British Columbia Chamber of Commerce.
  4. Don’t be oblivious. Canoe, that means you. Referring to your $150 tasting menu as “Canadian” – while it depends on such indigenous ingredients as caribou, buckthorn berries, “balsam fir crème fraîche,” Okanagan plums, and pheasant – is, to say the least, unseemly. Sure, it’s not Canoe’s fault that people are starving in Attawapiskat. Still, a little acknowledgment of the culinary inspiration here might be due, while you’re busy bleeding your guests dry.
  5. Do acknowledge the lived experience of colonization and its effects of impoverishment and malnutrition. One example is Toronto’s Tea n’ Bannock, which offers sandwiches of a canned baloney meat known as Klik. Historically, it has been used as part of the Indian Affairs rations and continues to be popular because of its affordability. Despite its lack of nutritional value and its debatable flavour, it is part of the lived experience of Indigenous cuisine and speaks to post-contact food realities.

Kelly Reid is a graduate of Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, where she still lives today. She completed her Masters degree in English Literature and now works as a freelance journalist and food writer. When she isn’t stringing words together, Kelly likes to watch Jeopardy and hang out with her cat, Jonathan.

  • Sarah Yankoo

    Great post! Miigwetch

  • http://alagarconniere.wordpress.com/ julia

    Really important discussion. Only thing: in point 2, it should be noted that Wendake is a First Nations reserve (Huron-Wendat Nation) and that La Traite is aboriginal owned, it’s in the beautifully designed hotel that accounts for much of the tourism in the region. The critique of the way the menu is worded might have to do with the fact that it is a mostly francophone community.

  • nevilleross

    Why not just open up a white people restaurant, and leave it at that? Or support First Nations people when they want to open up such a business? My guess is that Toronto being so small a place (at least the downtown area) and having (seemingly) driven most of the ethnic restaurants out of downtown Toronto (all or most of them are now in Scarborough, North York, East York, York, and the city of Mississauga) now the whites have to make up for what’s happened by glomming onto First Nations food and creating new places based around that cuisine.

    I wish that the people who do that would either find another type of business, or stick to what they know about food in their own culture rather that do this.

  • http://www.examiner.com/family-in-new-york/rahela-choudhury RCHOUDH

    Thanks for this informative post giving an example of Canada’s treatment of its First Nations’ population. This also serves to highlight yet another example of Western cultural appropriation of other cultures for financial/material benefits. It’s especially egregious of them to just label the food as “Canadian” without stating which particular culture they originated from, since like the US, Canada consists of a variety of cultures intermingling with each other. I hope more awareness is brought to this issue everywhere.

  • noncarborundum

    There’s a restaurant in a downtrodden neighbourhood of Toronto called Tea n’ Bannock http://www.teanbannock.ca/. It offers “a taste of Aboriginal Canada” and is run by a “native church group” (apparently of white people) called Circle of Hope Fellowship http://nativechurchtoronto.wordpress.com/about/, effectively as a non-profit enterprise (i.e. when they cannot make their rent, the church community passes the hat to keep it open).