Throughout Canada, indigenous cuisine is having a renaissance. Part reconciliation, part ethnic food experience, one of the ways the reemerging native voice is expressing itself is in a return to the foods traditionally consumed by Canada’s First Nations.
While multicultural Canada boasts thousands of restaurants serving food styles from virtually every country of the planet, indigenous cuisine is a relative newcomer with only a handful of venues across the nation — which seems odd, given that indigenous peoples were here long before the arrival of Europeans, and almost 5 per cent of Canada’s population identify themselves as indigenous.
“People understand what Thai food is, what Italian food is, what Chinese food is, what Ethiopian food is,” Shawn Adler, the chef behind Toronto’s Pow Wow Cafe, said in a recent interview. “But people don’t really understand what indigenous cuisine is.”
Part of the explanation lies in the shameful chapter of Canadian history where assimilation of the First Nations was the official government practice, and all indigenous culture, including language as well as traditional foods, was forbidden. In fact, from the outset of colonial expansion, food and food sovereignty were used as a weapon against indigenous peoples. The current generation, many of whose parents were victims of Canada’s Residential School system, are the first to be able to openly embrace their heritage and culture. And it is this generation that is spearheading the emerging indigenous food scene.
In the process, the definition of the term “indigenous food” is itself evolving, not surprising given Canada’s wide expanse and the number of individual first nations – 634, speaking more than 50 distinct languages, according to Statistics Canada. The predominant foods consumed vary significantly with geography, from salmon on the coasts, bison on the plains, and moose and deer throughout. However, the wild game that makes up the traditional native diet poses a challenge for restaurants, as most provinces have regulations meat that has been hunted cannot be served to patrons in restaurants.
Even where meat from a wild harvest can be served, obstacles exist, especially the sensibilities of non-native urbanites. Last year animal activists launched a petition demanding that Toronto’s Kūkŭm Kitchen and Chef Joseph Shawana remove seal meat from its menu. Fortunately, a groundswell of opposing support sprang up, accusing activists of seeking to impose their values on indigenous practices, especially given the sustainable and humane nature of the seal meat harvest. Not only has Kūkŭm weathered the protest, it has emerged even stronger, and business is booming.
In addition to Kūkŭm and Pow Wow Cafe, another notable Toronto indigenous restaurants is NishDish, started by Johl Whiteduck Ringuette, which celebrates Anishinaabe and other indigenous cultures. In addiiton to the restaurant and a related catering operation, Ringuette sees his space as “a food-oriented educational hub,” starting with a course he helped develop and is teaching for Native Child and Family Services of Toronto on indigenous cuisine.
In downtown Vancouver, Salmon n’ Bannock Bistro has become known for its authentic Indigenous experience. In addition to Indigenous cuisine using fresh and certified organic ingredients, offering a modern vision of traditional fare, the bistro provides art and music. It is staffed by members of the Nupalk, Haida Gwaii, Blackfoot and Wet’suwet’en nations.
Elsewhere around British Columbia, Lelem’ Arts and Cultural Cafe is located in Fort Langley, as well as a satellite location, Lelem’ at the Fort, at the Fort Langley National Historic Site. Kekuli Café has locations in the towns of Merritt (on Nlaka’pa’mux First Nation territory) and Westbank, in the Okanagan Valley. There is also Indigenous World Winery’s Red Fox Club, which is part of the Westbank First Nation, while Victoria’s Kitchens of Distinction offers an indigenous culinary tours of Vancouver Island, including a traditional Coast Salish feast, culminating with a dance ceremony, and a forest hike with an ethnologist who explains about edible and medicinal plants used by Indigenous communities.