Agriculture Canada is the first federal department to employ a departmental elder to help the institution navigate relationships with indigenous peoples.
In 2017, Ag Canada created the indigenous support and awareness office to increase the department’s capacity to work with indigenous people, and hired elder Mervin Traverse to provide full-time elder support to the agency.
Elder Traverse is a member of the Lake St. Martin Ojibwa First Nation. Before joining Agriculture Canada in 2016, he worked at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency for 28 years.
At the CFIA, Traverse worked as an animal health program inspector with animal diseases.
In 2015 Brian Gray, assistant deputy minister at Agriculture Canada, asked Traverse to move from the CFIA to become the first indigenous elder at the department.
Traverse has four broad responsibilities at Ag Canada: provide an indigenous perspective within the department, serve as an indigenous liaison with First Nation communities, provide cultural support to indigenous employees within the department, and raise cultural awareness within the department.
To help in his liaison role, Traverse is building and maintaining a network of contacts within indigenous communities.
“Every region is different, and different from my Ojibwa teachings, so I have to really adapt very quickly so I can understand which is the direction they are going,” said Traverse.
To support indigenous employees at Ag Canada, Traverse is available to talk on the phone with them, or he may connect the employees to other community members who can provide support.
Traverse said there are a lot of opportunities and services offered at Agriculture Canada that indigenous people are not aware of.
“I feel that they feel very comfortable because they see their own kind, and I’m just trying to help communities, giving them the opportunity to see what’s there,” Traverse said.
Indigenous student recruitment is a significant task for Traverse. He attends career fairs across the country to describe Ag Canada opportunities to educators and students.
“We went to the University of Saskatchewan and University of Regina and we realized how high the indigenous population in post-secondary there is in those two universities. We realized we had no indigenous students working for Ag Canada in any of our research centres,” Traverse said.
The following year, in 2017, he said Ag Canada started using “champions,” who would represent and promote various regions to see whether they could get indigenous students interested in agriculture.
Indigenous students in the Federal Student Work Experience Program (FSWEP) are placed in a pool from which all federal departments can draw. The program provides work experience and enables employers to better match students to work.
“Third year FSWEP students are very experienced, other departments are grabbing them. As an employer you pull the one that fits the profile of your employment,” Traverse said.
He is also trying to get young people in indigenous communities located near Ag Canada research stations interested in the work available at the centres.
“We have 20 research centres across Canada. From the east, we have them all over — Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and two in B.C., Summerland and Agassiz,” he said.
Traverse said there are opportunities on many reserves for agricultural production, which is another reason he thinks indigenous communities could benefit from a stronger relationship with Ag Canada.
“A lot of the agricultural land that sits along these communities has not been utilized, and it’s prime agricultural land, especially in the Prairies, and there is a generation of lost farmers within indigenous people.
“They have the second-largest land base in Canada, so for them to start utilizing their land rather than just leasing it, it would be nice to see them start to use that land to be able to plant different crops, to use their land, put back into their communities, teach the young people the value of what the land has to offer them,” Traverse said.
There is also an opportunity for Ag Canada to promote practices that encourage food security in indigenous communities.
“I know the high cost of transportation to move goods and produce into these communities. There has got to be ways for us to be able to educate and help put projects together. Maybe community gardens in the northern communities. If there’s an interest, maybe greenhouses,” he said.
Ag Canada is also involved in research that promotes traditional indigenous crops such as Labrador Tea, and the three sisters (corn, bean, squash), and Traverse may be able to help the department uncover research initiatives that would benefit indigenous communities.