Growing up, I had a foggy recollection of living in the North Central area of Regina on Treaty 4 land. My mother, single and Indigenous, was a full-time student with two young girls to feed on a small budget and limited resources. You see, Regina, like so many other urban centres with a high-Indigenous population in lower-income neighbourhoods, had minimal options for conveniently located grocery stores. A modern-day method of clearing the plains. My mother would bundle my sister and I up in minus forty prairie winters and load us onto the city bus for whatever groceries fit her budget. I don’t remember specific meals so much as the process. And what a process.
I swing by the grocery store after work to grab a few things for dinner. Out of guilt, I skip the convenience of buying potatoes on the spot, and instead opt to pluck, clean, and peel the ones in the garden instead.
After my mother finished her undergraduate degree, we moved to a nearby reserve for one of her first teaching jobs. Of course, most reserves don’t have grocery stores and produce sections. After settling down east for a bit, our monthly ritual meant cramming into my mother’s first car she ever owned and driving to the nearest town for groceries. If we were lucky, we’d make a stop at the Bargain! Bargain! Bargain! store. If we were even luckier, we’d maybe stop for KFC.
It’s been a really hot summer. Most days, I don’t feel like cooking. I forego the process entirely and make a salad from the garden instead. I stay full for the rest of the day.
My sixth birthday party is probably the first one I remember. I invited a few girls over from school and from the neighbouring town. I remember being in awe of my mother that day. In her magic, she somehow conjured up sparkles, chocolate syrup, candied nuts, and syrupy strawberries. My friends and I spent the afternoon piling banana splits the size of our torsos. We didn’t live in the nicest house, but we had enough space for ten or so squealing children vibrating off a sugar rush.
My partner and I have a craving for something sweet. I outgrew my sweet tooth years ago, but something has to be done about the rhubarb. He plucks some stems and I fluke a decent rhubarb crisp. I pile on some maple ice cream. Our cravings are cured.
We moved back into the city when my mother decided she wanted to pursue her master’s degree. We moved into a duplex with my step-father and this time, we were just down the street from a grocery store. My mother was taking night classes at the time, and more often than not, my step-father was in charge of feeding us. My favourite was his Kraft dinner and ground beef.
We have more tomatoes than we know what to do with. Uncreatively, my partner and I decide to cook them into a sauce. Instead of running to the store to grab pasta, we bake a spaghetti squash from the backyard and scrape out its insides. There’s so much food, we also feed my mother and her partner.
It gets cold at night now. On the long list of things to do to prepare for the coming winter, tending to what’s left of the garden is a new and welcome addition. I’ve never had a garden before this summer.
I’ve only recently come into a diet that makes space for fresh produce. It’s the first fall after my first garden and it’s only now that I’ve realized what a privilege it’s been to be a part of the process that results in growing your own food. While Indigenous people are achieving post-secondary, or raising families, or protecting land and water, housing a garden with fresh produce seems like an out-of-reach task. I reflected on this every time I weeded, plucked, and harvested goods from our small garden. I realize now that my mother was incredibly strapped for time and at times, resources, in our upbringing as she worked towards a better life for my sister and I.
My partner, who is non-Indigenous, was raised in a Mennonite family. Although not rich in dollars, it was common in his upbringing to always have access to fresh produce in the family’s large garden. He comes from a long line of settlers that made these lands their homes and farmlands. While we both delighted in our first garden together, I gather that he didn’t feel the same waves of guilt, laced with intense privilege, that I did.
My ancestors knew these lands better than settlers ever could. They cultivated a livelihood that survived them through minus forty winters, plus forty summers, and everything in between. They treated the land as a living being, wasting nothing in their intake. They raised families from this soil. They harvested generations with their hands cooled from the clay and shoulders warming in the sun.
Food has also been longtime weaponized against my people. Starvation methods began with contact and still haunt communities to this day. The cost of produce is unattainable in northern communities while white vegans use their megaphones to drown out the voices of Inuit people’s beautiful ceremonies of seal hunting; most reserves lack access to fresh groceries, and if you’re without transportation while provincial governments cut bus services, the hurdle is much higher; and grocery stores are closing down in rapid rates in poorer urban neighbourhoods as gentrification becomes the priority. Growing our own food from the land is yet another form of ceremony that has been eroded by everyday colonialism.
But even still, we rise. We rise when Indigenous-owned restaurants pop up in urban settings. We rise when Inuk documentaries win national and international awards. We rise when our inner-cities house nonprofits and grassroots organizations that feed our families despite the dismantling of grocery stores. And we rise when we learn how to grow things from our own soil in our own backyards on stolen lands with our hands and knees pressed against the earth, as the same clay that cooled our ancestors’ hands cling under our nail beds for another season.