Canada’s First Nations people were country’s first farmers

Cadmus Delorme is the Chief of Cowessess First Nation, a Saulteaux, Cree and Metis First Nation in Southern Saskatchewan, north and east of Regina.  |  Cowesses photo

The first farmers of this land did not wear Carhartt’s. They didn’t drive pickup trucks or listen to Merle Haggard. The first farmers of this land were not of European descent. The first farmers were Indigenous people of what is now called the Canadian Prairies.

Primarily mobile buffalo hunters, Indigenous people produced and sold food, medicine, construction material, and ceremonial supplies gathered from nearly 180 plant species.

Life during the 1700s was vibrant on the Canadian Prairies, with diverse populations of Indigenous people, whose profound knowledge and connection to the land resulted in nutritional opportunism and nomadic communities.

Then Europeans arrived in search of land and resources. At one time, nearly 50 million buffalo roamed the Prairies. Realizing that the buffalo were a means of survival for Indigenous people, the governments at that time slaughtered the millions of buffalo. The lives of Indigenous people were changed forever, their food sovereignty demolished by colonization.

Natural disasters in the 1880s caused challenges for farmers. While non-Indigenous farmers were able to move away and homestead, Indigenous farmers were inequitably denied that privilege and forced to stay under the rule of the newly enacted Indian Act of 1876.

“When it comes to our history, we all have to address the ignorance and uncomfortable conversations that come up,” says Cadmus Delorme. Delorme is the 39-year-old Chief of Cowessess First Nations, a Saulteaux, Cree, and Metis First Nation in southern Saskatchewan.

As someone who has bloodline to the first peoples and now a dad of four young children, Delorme feels the pain of this history every day.

“It feels like I constantly need to prove my worth, being caramel coloured. I feel the pressure to always do extra, something the vanilla colour doesn’t have to do.”

A sense of responsibility is what first prompted Delorme to run for chief in 2016 at age 34 in search of creating a better tomorrow for his children and his people.

“History is our greatest teacher. A better tomorrow for Indigenous farmers requires a look at the past.”

“Two generations ago, just after treaty signing Indigenous farmers were thriving. But due to federal government denial and lack of investments, crop insurance policies, and the unacknowledged jurisdictional responsibility between the federal and provincial government, the help was not there as it was for non-Indigenous farmers,” noted Delorme.

Homesteading was not allowed for Indigenous people. Indigenous farmers were also not allowed to sell any of their grain or produce without a permit, and in 1885, a system was developed by Europeans to control and confine the movement of commodities on and off reserves. Indigenous farmers could not take out loans and acquiring credit from local merchants was nearly impossible for them.

“There are policy implications as to why Indigenous peoples don’t farm their own land and an explanation for why the agriculture industry currently has minimal Indigenous involvement.” This is a history that none of us today created, yet Indigenous people and non-Indigenous people share the aftermath that is still happening today in many forms.

Currently, most federal government reserve land is rented to non-Indigenous farmers. Delorme states that it was not always this way and that government agriculture policy has been designed for intentional exclusion of Indigenous people from the beginning. “Everything from supply chain management, the pool to sell grains, and infrastructure. At one time Indigenous people had to ask for permission to sell their product and were given permission only after non-Indigenous farmers sold their product.”

“The role that the Bank of Canada plays has come into question, as the ability for Indigenous people to access financing for machinery or farm infrastructure is nearly impossible.”

Despite all of this, Delorme is optimistic.

“We share a land that produces the best fertilizer and food for us to all succeed together. We have so much potential as Indigenous peoples, we’re still here.”

Cowessess First Nations share traditional cultural beliefs about food production with an emphasis on food sovereignty.

“If the world was to shut down for a month, how would we survive with what’s around us?”

The band manages 200 head of Angus cattle and farms 4,500 acres of crop land, with potential to farm 32,000 acres.

The barriers that exist for Cowessess are human capital, the ability to hold land as a business asset and government support programs. Because Indigenous farmers are not operating family-run businesses, and are operating on reserve land, it is a barrier to being involved in government agriculture programs.

The band is also exploring areas of renewable energy with a wind turbine that generates 600 kilowatts, an expanding solar farm project that can generate 11 megawatts, and two lithium battery storage units. All power is sold back to the grid.

Cowessess is in its second year of grain farming. “We want to farm more in the future and utilize our land to create employment, business capacity, and contribute to the agriculture industry. We also seek help because over the generations we have not been grain farmers.”

While a focus on future growth is top of mind, Delorme incorporates traditional into business.

“We focus on producing what we need so that we may thrive long-term. We do this through stewardship to animals, to water systems, and our air.”

The elimination of Indigenous people’s food sovereignty by European settlers explains a lot about the current relationship between Indigenous people, non-Indigenous people, and the role that the land plays. The land is currency, and less than one percent of the land in Canada currently belongs to Indigenous people.

Delorme believes that success for his people is about thriving in a way that means more than dollars and cents.

“Cowessess First Nation wants to be part of the growth as a First Nations-led business. Our end goal is to be farm leaders, and good neighbours who want to work together, grow together, and better understand one another. Agriculture can be that connection between all of us.”

Katelyn Duncan PAg is a Regina area agrologist, policy analyst, and farm management consultant at Backswath Management. She can be reached at koduncan90@gmail.com.

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