From the boreal forest to the tundra; from the Prairie grasslands to Ontario’s Carolinian woodlands, Canada is stunningly rich with flora and fauna. Bio-diversity is our most valuable heritage. With 71,000 species which have been scientifically described and another estimated 69,000 species yet to be named and classified, it becomes crystalline that the protection of our ecological heritage is absolutely paramount. These raw materials are the building blocks of future crops, both food and medicinal. As plant breeders head to the original cradles for the landraces of the particular crops with which they are working, so too, will future biologists come to Canada.
For the First Nations, the rhythm of life was in the harvest and the attitudes towards it. The notion of ‘oneness’ with the earth and its gifts was embedded in Aboriginal belief long before contact, predating the modern concept of “eco-systems by millennia. For the Nuu-Chah-Nulth people of coastal B.C their physical reality was transposed into their culture. “All things are related and interconnected. All things are sacred.”
Throughout pre-contact times agriculture seemed to develop in a parallel fashion across the nation although in widely diverging patterns.
On the northwest coast, indigenous peoples named over 300 plants and among them over 100 were used as food sources, many harvested from particular places within specific regions. The concept of ownership of these sites is coupled with growing evidence of plant management – a term we might loosely call ‘farming’. All along the coast, small plots of land were sowed, weeded, tilled, transplanted and burned to encourage growth. “Northwest Coast Aboriginal peoples were not passive occupants and opportunistic users of the environment.” They managed clam beds, moved tiny salmon, or even the eggs, to streams that needed, what we now call, enhancing. They burned meadows, much as our own farmers burn off the stubble, so that the precious camas lilies could flourish and other plants would grow in order to attract deer and elk. They patiently harvested such foods like herring roe by suspending hemlock boughs into the water and later, when coated with the foamy spawn, they’d dry the roe for use all year round. But when Europeans arrived, with their concept of fenced, geometrical fields, their perception was that no management practices were in place.
In central Canada, the three sisters, corn, beans and squash provided the explorers with a more understandable picture. By the time they arrived, the three crops were being grown together very successfully in companion plantings and their range of cultivation was from what is now Windsor to Eastern Ontario and up to Georgian Bay. About 23,000 acres were under cultivation while another 175 plants were gathered specifically for food and at least 52 others were collected for beverages.
Today’s agricultural landscape is many layered and so complex that few truly understand more than a small segment. However, much of the original palate remains…flora and fauna that populate the wild and semi-urban areas of Canada with edible possibilities…ones which deserve our attention and much wider acceptance on our tables, from wapato and cattails to nodding onions and seaweed.
Canada’s boreal region, which covers 58% of our national land mass, is filled with such treasures. From Newfoundland to the Yukon, Canada is one of the last places on earth that has entire ecosystems still intact. It teems with life….and with food.
This food is Canada’s first natural wonder and it rivals any on earth. Together we are privileged to bear witness and write this extraordinary story of Canadian cuisine. Canada IS food and the world is richer for it.
Excerpt from Anita Stewart’s CANADA: The Food, The Recipes, The Stories (HarperCollins 2008/2014)