Good morning, everyone, and welcome. This is our first meeting.
Pursuant to Standing Order 108(2), we are studying the support for indigenous Canadians in the agriculture and agri-food industry.
I want to welcome, from the Department of Agriculture and Agri-Food, Mr. Tom Rosser, Assistant Deputy Minister for the Strategic Policy Branch. Thanks for being here again. We appreciate it.
I'd also like to welcome Jane Taylor, Assistant Deputy Minister for the Programs Branch; Brian T. Gray, Champion, Indigenous Network Circle, and Assistant Deputy Minister for the Science and Technology Branch; and Mervin Traverse, Department Elder.
We'll start with opening statements of up to seven minutes.
Mr. Rosser, I believe you will start.
Thank you, Mr. Chair.
Good morning. I'd like to thank the committee for offering the department the opportunity to discuss indigenous support in the Canadian agriculture and agri-food industry. I'd like to also acknowledge the timeliness of this study, as indigenous engagement in this sector is increasing in importance and frequency at the federal-provincial-territorial table.
Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada is committed to supporting the advancement of indigenous peoples in the agriculture and agri-food sector and the federal truth and reconciliation process. We've learned a lot from outreach sessions with our indigenous partners, and we've started to make some progress in the department. We understand that we have some catching up to do, including strengthening our partnerships and programs. We're hopeful that the work of this committee will enhance our understanding and enrich our ability to better support participation of indigenous peoples in the sector.
Agriculture and Agri-food Canada (AAFC) is firmly committed to creating meaningful dialogue and developing ongoing and sustained relationships with First Nations, Métis and Inuit in Canada. We recognize that this is a long-term commitment, one that will require intense effort and ongoing investment. We are committed to facilitating nation-to-nation dialogue and co-developed initiatives. Increased communication, accountability and support for greater indigenous representation in the department will be key.
There is an eagerness to move forward. However, we want to ensure that we get this right and are thoughtful in taking our next steps. As such, we are currently examining the ways in which AAFC can improve the way that it organizes itself to support this work and to ensure the department is appropriately resourced.
Our engagement efforts to date have included two outreach sessions, with approximately 85 first nations participants, in 2017, which provided perspectives that guided AAFC's approach to supporting indigenous issues. Food policy consultations with indigenous peoples, which took place also in 2017, were led by indigenous organizations, including the Assembly of First Nations, the Native Women's Association of Canada and the ITK.
As a department, we have established and supported programs to engage indigenous partners. Before explaining those, I'll note that my colleague Jane Taylor, the Assistant Deputy Minister of Programs, is here and can answer questions you may have on federal programs.
Under Growing Forward 2, indigenous-led initiatives were supported by AAFC. At the time, GF2 did not emphasize the development of policies targeting an increase in the participation of indigenous peoples in the sector, nor did the department measure indigenous participation well.
In developing the Canadian agricultural partnership, we tried to learn from GF2 and create policies and programs that strengthen the sector's inclusivity. We will also do a better job in measuring results and impacts of our programs.
From the beginning, under-represented groups, including indigenous peoples, were considered when FPT partners drafted the Canadian agricultural partnership's multilateral framework agreement with provinces and territories.
There are federal and cost-shared programs supporting indigenous participation through the Canadian agricultural partnership, many of which specifically target indigenous communities and provide tools to enable their participation in the sector. British Columbia, for instance, has an indigenous agriculture development program, supported by Canadian agricultural partnership funding. Provinces and territories also have programming outside the Canadian agricultural partnership, and we are working with provincial and territorial partners to get a better understanding of their programs and policies.
Under the CAP, we've developed AgriDiversity, a five-year, $5-million program that seeks to directly support the participation of under-represented groups, including indigenous peoples, in the sector. The program helps develop skills, leadership and entrepreneurial capacity. To date, two indigenous-led projects have been approved. The program is supporting activities led by the Council for the Advancement of Native Development Officers and the Northern Farm Training Institute in the Northwest Territories.
AAFC has begun to make a more conscious effort to measure progress in indigenous engagement throughout federal-only programs under CAP. Applications received to date range from providing business planning and financial management services that assist indigenous peoples in starting or expanding an agricultural operation, to piloting growing traditional foods in a greenhouse and community garden, and transferring knowledge to indigenous women and communities.
We've also developed the indigenous agriculture and food systems initiative. This five-year, $8.5-million initiative is designed to increase economic development opportunities for indigenous people by supporting their capacity to participate and succeed in the agricultural sector. This initiative is implemented with financial and logistical support from AAFC and the federal strategic partnerships initiative led by CIRNAC, Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada.
Through our consultations we heard it can be difficult to navigate AAFC's programs. In response, we developed and launched an indigenous pathfinder service in 2018. It's effectively a concierge service that offers personalized one-on-one assistance to help indigenous individuals and organizations develop opportunities in the agriculture and agri-food sector.
In terms of upcoming initiatives, the department is working with Métis partners to develop a Métis outreach strategy. We will continue to work with the Assembly of First Nations and other national indigenous organizations to support their efforts to build a first nations agriculture strategy. We'll continue to examine ways to support food security initiatives in the north. We'll work with other government departments to better understand the federal programming landscape. We will maintain an FPT dialogue on indigenous policies and programs.
Again, thank you for the opportunity to discuss this with you today.
I will now turn the floor over to my colleague Brian Gray, who will speak about more internally focusing programs.
Thank you, Tom, and thank you, Mr. Chair.
Before I begin, I'd like to acknowledge Elder Mervin Traverse. He's a member of the Lake St. Martin Ojibway First Nation, and a traditional Saulteaux-language speaker. He is also Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada's first departmental elder, and he is here today to answer questions that you might have pertaining to this role.
As Tom mentioned, our department has several branches working to support a diverse array of indigenous initiatives. Underlying this work is the need to increase our departmental capacity to work effectively with indigenous peoples, both externally with indigenous partners but also internally with our indigenous colleagues. In 2017, the indigenous support and awareness office was established to increase our capacity to carry out this work. It has has done so through a variety of methods, such as supporting indigenous recruitment and retention within our department, providing full-time elder services, developing a tailored indigenous awareness learning series for the department, and supporting research projects and partnerships with indigenous communities.
Supporting the recruitment and retention of indigenous employees requires consistent and long-term efforts. To that end, the indigenous student recruitment initiative was launched in February 2016, to offer indigenous students valuable experience and knowledge of the careers available within the public service, and to encourage the pursuit of an education and career, especially in the science and technology disciplines where indigenous peoples have historically been, and continue to be, underrepresented.
Since its launch, a total of 103 students have been hired through the initiative and many have stayed on part-time through the school year, as long as it does not interfere with their studies.
Our department conducts significant outreach to promote knowledge of our indigenous student recruitment initiative within indigenous communities, which is done through various means such as presentations at friendship centres, tabling at career fairs and community visits. Through these efforts, to date roughly 3,500 indigenous students have been consulted about our initiative.
Once hired, students are offered support for the many activities of the department's indigenous network circle, one of the department's five employee diversity networks. Each network has an assistant deputy minister champion, and I am the champion of the indigenous network circle.
The indigenous network circle is a networking and support service for indigenous employees and students that also serves as a platform for enhanced awareness and appreciation of indigenous people and cultures. The work of the indigenous network circle concentrates on three main areas: raising awareness of first nations, Métis and Inuit cultures; recruitment, retention and professional development of indigenous employees and students; and organizing cultural activities for all staff.
I would like to now discuss Elder Traverse's role within the department.
We are the first federal department to have a full-time elder on staff. Since Elder Traverse has joined us, other departments are looking at doing the same. Elder Traverse has roots in the public service, with over 28 years of service at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency prior to joining our department in September of 2016.
Elder Traverse's role in our department has four broad responsibilities: first, to provide an indigenous perspective within the department; second, to serve as an indigenous liaison, whereby Elder Traverse helps to facilitate partnerships with indigenous communities and businesses; third, to provide cultural and emotional support to indigenous employees within the department; and, finally, to raise cultural awareness within the department through various cultural awareness sessions that are made available to all of our employees.
Elder Traverse's presence has been a significant contribution to the department's greater effort to reconcile with indigenous peoples and is a key reason why the department has been recognized by Mediacorp and The Globe and Mail as one of Canada's best diversity employers for the past two consecutive years.
The next topic that I would like to address is the development of a tailored indigenous awareness learning series for the department. The driver for this initiative is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada's call to action number 57, which calls upon all Canadian governments to provide professional development and training for public servants on the histories and cultures of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples.
This series will include both formal and informal learning opportunities through workshops, courses, videos, books, a speaker series and cultural awareness information sessions. The speaker series and cultural awareness sessions are currently underway, while the others are being developed. The bulk of the learning activities will focus on agriculture and the needs identified within the department.
Finally, we support research projects and partnerships within indigenous communities. Our indigenous support and awareness office is working on developing learning materials for our scientists, who plan to collaborate with indigenous partners, and will be organizing a workshop this spring to begin that learning series.
One of our employees, Emily McAuley, a biologist and member of Lake Manitoba First Nation, has done an incredible job serving as Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada's first indigenous liaison scientist. In this new role, she facilitates scientific collaborations with indigenous partners, our own in-house science and technology branch researchers, and external experts.
In 2018, our science and technology branch also added a new priority for an internal call for proposals that our scientists compete for. They were challenged to develop proposals regarding an area that we entitled, “understanding and supporting indigenous people's cultivated food systems.” Our branch also has several ongoing research projects involving indigenous collaborators, including our living laboratories initiative and other projects, such as the three sisters project, the lingonberries project and the Labrador tea project.
Both through the food policy and through other changes to our existing programming, we hope to be able to better support indigenous agriculture in Canada.
Just in the past year or two, we have begun to set up programs targeted directly at indigenous participation in agriculture for the first time, and also at greater participation in agriculture and agri-food from other under-represented groups.
When one talks about the food policy and about food security issues, particularly in the context of northern and remote communities, one hears consistently a strong preference for greater food sovereignty and security in the community, as opposed to simply making food from outside the community, from the south, cheaper and more readily available.
Perhaps Brian can talk about this. I know we already have some partnerships with indigenous communities around vertical agriculture, community freezers and that type of thing. Certainly, again, in northern and remote communities, greater food sovereignty often means greater accessibility of country foods.
We are taking measures in this area already. I would anticipate that we will further them through the rollout of the food policy, but we also recognize that it's a journey and not a destination. While we feel good about some of the progress that's been made, we realize there's a long journey ahead.
I mentioned in my opening remarks our call for proposals for working with indigenous communities. One of the calls was for sustainable northern agricultural production, going into communities and looking at where there were potentially traditional ways of producing local food. Also, this notion of contained agriculture—what we call northern greenhouses—is still an area of development. It's not an area that is widespread, so we're in the process of looking at it.
Our scientists have reached out and they have found some communities that are interested in co-developing this technology. We're in the letter of intent stage. We haven't awarded the projects yet, but we're looking at a couple of northern communities specifically to do this.
One technology is aiming to expand the growing season. You could think of varieties or techniques outside where you could expand the growing season for foods, for vegetables; and the other would be this notion of contained agriculture. It would be analogous to a greenhouse, but it wouldn't be a greenhouse. It would just be something totally contained.
One of the biggest challenges in a community that's off the electricity grid is finding clean, sustainable technologies to do that. The university systems are aware of this, and we're looking at partnerships with them as well.
Thank you to the witnesses for being here.
I also want to thank the analysts who did a good job at providing us with a brief on the landscape of indigenous agriculture.
There is a tableau that I've seen—it didn't shock me, but I am interested in learning more. Maybe you don't have the answers, but I think it would be interesting for us to understand. It has to do with farm income from non-aboriginal communities, compared to farm income from aboriginal and Métis communities. I know that, for instance, non-aboriginal farmers will mostly focus on oilseeds and grain. First nations will mostly focus on other crops, maple sap and whatnot.
Do we know, based on those statistics, if the other crops are also export oriented?
Mr. Chair, I'll look to my colleagues. I don't know that I am familiar with the statistics to which he refers. I would certainly be curious to see them.
What we do know about indigenous agriculture is that we're talking about a diversity of things. There are some very large, sophisticated indigenous-run agricultural operations in Canada that will be export oriented. However, in many cases, indigenous agriculture is much smaller scale in nature. We'll sometimes be directed towards increasing community level food security and food sovereignty.
We're talking about a range. There absolutely are indigenous agricultural operations that are very focused on the export sector, but many others are smaller scale, and targeted more at serving local demand.
I invite Jane, Brian or Mervin to add anything, if they wish.
Again, there are a couple of areas on the research and development side.
One of the projects that's under way is the lingonberry project. The closest thing a lingonberry is related to is a cranberry, but they're in uplands. They're found throughout the northern boreal forest. For whatever reason, the ones in northern Manitoba seem to have the highest anti-oxidant qualities of any lingonberry.
We have a scientist working on this. Mervin has helped facilitate community involvement in northern Manitoba. The communities are collecting these lingonberries to find out which ones have the super high anti-oxidant behaviour and whether those can then be cultivated. If they can, then this is a great opportunity for some of these northern communities to create a product that I think would have great export value.
Scientists out of our centre at Saint-Hyacinthe were working with a first nations community and business in Quebec on a Labrador tea project. Again, that had health, medicinal values that they were working through, to determine level of certification. They've created a concentrated drink in collaboration with our scientists. Now they're looking at the final stages of getting that product on the market and they see an opportunity for export.
Those are more of the traditional sorts of crops that they're looking at.
Another one is more of a community-based thing that Tom talked about. They are creating pemmican, which is a traditional food. They are drying meat, grinding and mixing it with things to create the most healthy pemmican that you could possibly eat. If that happens, then maybe that's an export opportunity as well.
I think the way we approach it is important. I mentioned at the outset the importance of working with the community. This means going to a community, finding one that's interested in this sort of thing, sitting down with members at the drawing board and finding out what exactly they're looking for. Is it self-sufficiency in feeding their community or is it that plus exporting to the south or internationally? Most of these communities don't have an active program so this means working with them and working with our research and development folks to see if these things are possible, whether it's growing something inside or outside.
That's where our calls for proposals are. They're different in the sense that our scientists are saying we found a community that's interested in working with us. We want to go to that community and start the discussions about what they're interested in working on.
In general, I think our approach to the north, whether it's in the treeline or with the Inuit, is to go to the community and find out what they want and what they need. Not all of them are ready or interested in agriculture, but by finding the ones that are, we learn by doing and then hopefully that will spread.
I can't speak to the broad national numbers but I can give you a couple of examples locally.
We have a large research and development centre in Lethbridge, Alberta. Adjacent to that is the Blood Tribe First Nation. Part of our student recruitment initiative was looking where we have research centres adjacent to first nations. The children from the first nations can commute, and it's a short distance to our centre.
In Summerland, B.C. close to Penticton, our centre is literally surrounded by Penticton Indian Band. In Agassiz, our neighbour on two sides of our research farm is Seabird Island First Nation, and then I get back to the Blood Tribe. When we started this program, they had agricultural activities in all three of those first nations. We didn't have any students and very few staff from those first nations. We talked to the chiefs and council and they were interested. We included students in our recruitment program, but your point about education is very important.
By getting students already in the university system, we've already picked the low-hanging fruit. We need to know how we get the kids in the community interested in agriculture, or any science or technology from my bias, and that is through our students who are a part of our program—we call them ambassadors. They go back into the community and talk to their peers. We're not as young as them so they're more likely to listen to somebody who's closer to a peer. They go into the community and say here's this wonderful educational program. These are jobs.
During the second hour of our meeting, we welcome Vincent Lévesque, the founder of the Agricultural Society for Indigenous Food Products, and Michel Gros Louis, its director.
Also, from Northern Farm Training Institute, we have Ms. Jackie Milne, President, by video conference.
We will start with a seven-minute opening statement.
Mr. Gros Louis, you have the floor.
. My name is Michel Gros Louis and I am a Huron-Wendat from Wendake.
Let me introduce you to the Agricultural Society for Indigenous Food Products (ASIFP), which is based in Quebec and was founded in 2014. However, first of all, I would like to briefly go over my professional background. I worked for 30 years in agri-food, science and technology at the Research and Development Centre in Saint-Hyacinthe. I retired in 2016. In 2018, I was appointed executive director. Over the past few years, I have worked as a facilitator in indigenous agri-food in Quebec. A report was published in 2013 on indigenous agriculture and agri-food production in Quebec. That document, which has been distributed, described the situation in Quebec. I cannot speak for the other provinces.
That was after indigenous agriculture was introduced during those years. I was wondering why Quebec was not part of that program. There was one project in British Columbia, one in Ontario and one in Saskatchewan. I was called upon to help. I was asked to paint a portrait of indigenous agriculture in Quebec, if there was such a thing. In 1910 in Kahnawake there were 1000 farmers, but 100 years later, in 2010, there were only five or six. This means that the situation has deteriorated in Quebec. There have been many problems, but absolutely no support.
The purpose of ASIFP is to promote local products. There are many products. In terms of supporting scientific research and innovation in indigenous local products, we encouraged a project with the Mohawks on hominy and corn soup. There is also the Labrador tea, of course, which has been the subject of a research and innovation project at the Research and Development Centre. Vincent Lévesque will talk about this at greater length. I am very interested in birch water, which has enormous potential. There are also berries, cloudberries. There are many products.
There was also the “Three Sisters” project, which took place between 2015 and 2018 and which was sponsored by ASIFP with Agriculture Canada's Science and Technology Branch. A report published in the spring of 2018 is entitled “Three Sisters value-chain: characterization of attributes and functionalities of aboriginal corn, squash and bean varieties, preservation of genetic material and prefeasibility of new culture models”. I have also been hired in recent years to inventory the collection of traditional seeds from the Iroquois who cultivated the last species. The purpose of the Agriculture Canada project was to protect World Heritage seeds under the Paris Agreement.
I will now discuss assistance to indigenous farmers and agri-food in collaboration with the government to create programs. The situation for programs is very difficult in Quebec. There is virtually no support. An indigenous farmer lost his 2,000 apple trees. He was 35 years and two months old and the age limit to be eligible for this program was 35. Many of the problems we face are raised in the report. There are many problems. We receive no help, regardless of the area. This is also the case for farmers. There have been a lot of losses.
Charly Jacob, from Kahnawake, is a founding member. Three nations keep the traditional seeds. They have a project that deals with traditional corn for soup. Julie Landry, who is Abenaki, wants to establish a school farm to help indigenous youth by raising traditional crops. Of course, there is Vincent Lévesque and the Terre de l'aigle products, medicinal plants, essential oils, Labrador tea, and so on.
. I will continue along the same lines as Mr. Gros Louis.
My name is Vincent Lévesque, and I am a member of the Huron-Wendat Nation. Basically, I am a communications man with a background in political science from Université Laval. I now work in agri-food, which proves that you never know where studies in political science will take you.
I know the economic development sector, and I believe in the potential of the First Nations. Because I believe in a vision of economic development and work, and to inspire pride in First Nations, I spent over 20 years creating networks and a business directory of indigenous communities in Quebec, the Prairies and Canada, a network I sold in 2008.
At the same time, I set up a company called Les produits autochtones Terre de l'aigle, which develops traditional incense and collaborates with traditional medicine men. We have developed expertise in the production of essential oils and plant maceration and have created medicinal synergies. I also work in partnership with a 74-year-old Innu medicine man, a third-generation healer, who teaches me a lot. In my company Terre de l'aigle, I have merged the modern with tradition, with a laboratory down below and a medicine man up top, who prescribes different plants.
Let me give you an example of medicinal synergy. I drink Labrador tea, something we have had much success with. It has about 70 uses and is world-renowned for treating hepatitis and cancer, as well as stimulating the immune system. I created a liquid concentrate that is even more powerful, and we made a powder version from it with the help of the Saint-Hyacinthe Research and Development Centre. Our company is apparently the first to use the Research Centre's pilot plants. I have been working on this project with the centre for the past seven years, and I would like to thank Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada very much for their help.
Mr. Gros Louis put me in touch with the necessary people because it is quite complicated for a small indigenous entrepreneur to advance projects within a large structure. I got help, and my project was approved. We have had great success in the laboratory. At the same time, my goal was to create a network of indigenous Labrador tea pickers across Canada, if necessary. We wanted to start with Quebec to make this plant better known. So I met with representatives of companies like Oasis to set targets for my liquid concentrate, which they liked. However, they asked me how much 8,000 litres of this concentrate would cost, and I couldn't answer them because I wasn't yet able to produce that much. I then began working with the pilot plant at the Saint-Hyacinthe Research and Development Centre, something I have been doing for the past seven years.
In addition, we founded the Agricultural Society for Indigenous Food Products, ASIFP, to establish a long-term vision for our future network and to include all the necessary people. It is a little complex in Quebec because of language issues and the fact that the communities are located more on forest land. They therefore do not practice the same type of agriculture as the Mohawks, who have more land to grow corn.
I want to thank you for inviting me here. I'm talking to you from Hay River, Northwest Territories. I'm the founder of the Northern Farm Training Institute. I'm a Métis person. I'm married with three children. I've seen that we need to build and contribute to the solutions to address northern food insecurity.
The deficit that is aggravating this is that we don't have domestic skills in domestic food production, which we need to complement the wild harvest systems for our indigenous and isolated communities. Right now, we have a functioning 260-acre farm campus in Hay River, which is the largest land-based farm in the Northwest Territories. We have successfully trained 250 first nations people and other people from 33 different communities.
Our students have already gone on to build gardens in their communities, build small farms and teach other people to produce domestic food.
Our program has been successful because of its unique structure and our genuine experience in teaching and producing food in an isolated place. We know how to produce sustainable, domestic vegetables that are appropriate in the northern setting and domestic meats in the north and we understand how to empower northern people, indigenous people. It helps build confidence. Hands-on experiential education is what we're doing. People need to learn the entire spectrum for growing food and how to build a business, how to access appropriate funds.
Our campus is scaled and has systems in place to feed 200 people in a northern, remote community setting. It's a full-spectrum operation. What does that look like?
We do have a deficit of skilled food producers and teachers in our isolated communities, but there's a fast way to turn this situation around. We need to empower local people to restore their food systems according to what they want, through direct capacity building, and have local indigenous people running newly created training and support centres that are around the theme of food. It can be domestic food and wild food. We need these two systems to complement each other.
In Canada we have over 600 indigenous-type communities that are often managed by bands. Our focus has been on the most vulnerable, most isolated extremities, but we do have a national vision. We believe there's a system that we can deliver.
We figured that we could build 50 training centres that would also be food-producing centres, and we would call them “from the land” learning hubs. Each centre would need to have a core of four to six people to run the centre, teach and produce the food. These small centres could service 10 to 15 regional communities around them.
From our experience, because of the isolation, with low-mechanized systems on bio-intensive garden farms one person can feed 10 people. We've already worked this out. In Canada, with a population of 1.6 million indigenous people, if our goal is to reach 10% of the population and strengthen their food skills—wild food skills and domestic food skills—we need to focus on this. In five years, we could empower 30,000 people throughout the most vulnerable communities.
The program is not like a traditional academic one. We could do it faster because the programs can be shorter, and run on weekends. We can have young, old, men, families, women, and an array of topics: gardening, animal husbandry, fishing, wild harvest skills. Once established, these training centres can even contribute to their own financial stability because they will be able to produce products to sell. There are a lot of options here.
We've calculated the financial scenarios that would be needed to implement this. We have some suggestions for even accessing nutrition north funding to invest in the critical infrastructure that needs to be built for domestic food systems. We know we have a serious crisis in Canada. I'm calling you from the north. I travel to remote communities. This is a serious problem. We need to address it immediately. We need to have federal funding directly supporting the solutions here.
Sadly, there's a dilution and an inefficiency that has been happening for decades because of the way administration goes through regional government. I'm sure we can correct this problem.
We have a 10-year plan for restoring food stability and independence in indigenous communities across Canada. We know we can do this, but we just need your help. We're already doing it. We're confident we can build whole food systems that will have lasting and profound impacts on indigenous wellness, health and economy. We need to foster independently managed food systems at the local level. It's already working. I'm here to tell you. I'm here because it's working.
Indeed, the passion among our witnesses today is quite obvious. I'd like to thank them for being here and testifying before us. I have so many questions to ask that I will certainly not have enough time.
This document is outstanding, Mr. Gros Louis.
In the report, will it be possible to take into account what's in the document? I've been told yes.
It addresses a very large number of issues. I'll try to ask you my questions quickly and will ask that you give me short answers.
Mr. Gros Louis, where do we stand following the tabling of this report?
In Quebec, the situation is really special. First, we don't have treaties like those in the west that include some form of agricultural assistance. There is the James Bay Agreement with the Crees, but the other nations don't have treaties. We are therefore working with the Quebec Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, whose conditions aren't flexible and are very difficult for First Nations to meet.
As for land, there are certainly a lot of claims, and there is a lot of land. As I said earlier, there were 1,000 farmers in Kahnawake. Today, there are five or six. There is no help, either federal or provincial, and the criteria are inaccessible.
For us, in Quebec, we are talking about start-up and not succession. Some people have small community gardens. Surprising traditional cultures, including very old varieties, are still being discovered. Yet people live in pain and misery. No program really helps us. At least ASIFP is keeping us alive and helping these people.
I would say that Quebec is the poor relation when it comes to indigenous agriculture in Canada.
Regarding funding for indigenous projects, I am setting up a plant and purchasing equipment, but there are issues. Since the assets of indigenous people living on reserve cannot be seized, they cannot obtain loans. When we want to obtain funding, we are often told to buy what we need and that we will be reimbursed later. That is often how programs work. We have to ask for loans, but since our assets can't be seized, putting up collateral for the loan is an issue. People want us to incorporate, but then we would lose all of our rights. There are several problems in this regard.
There might be other ways of doing things. We could, for instance, make direct payments to the suppliers as a guarantee. This would keep us from having to ask for bridge financing, which also costs money and is complicated, as it involves three levels of government: the provincial level, the federal one, and the band council.
There's no end to it. By the time we obtain authorizations from all of those levels of government, the government will have changed in the meantime, the funding will have run out, and everything will have to be done all over again. It's complicated and it's very slow, if you are trying to run a business. It's been seven years. I am patient, but I can't wait any longer. I'm going to die waiting.
Thank you very much, Chair.
Monsieur Gros Louis, I want to continue on the same topic you were talking about with Mr. Berthold. You were talking about some of the heritage varieties that exist in the traditional corns, beans and squashes.
When you go into today's supermarket, all we have is the yellow corn and the orange pumpkin. In domesticating many of these products for agricultural use, we have narrowed down the options that are available to many Canadians. You have talked about the role that first nations have traditionally played in trying to preserve these individual varieties.
I'm curious. Can you expand a little bit more on that subject, the important role that first nations play in making sure those heritage varieties still exist? Do you see some opportunities for trying to get some of these beautiful corns—I have a picture from your website of all of the different colours you have here—into more of the mainstream market? I think we're missing out so much when all we see in the major supermarkets is that yellow corn, but you have almost every single colour of the rainbow here. You have talked about the high nutritional value of some of those heritage varieties.
Can you expand a bit more on that, please?
It's a question that requires a long answer. To try to keep it short, however, there are seed keepers among the Iroquoian peoples in Ontario and Quebec who are secretly keeping their seeds alive. They have to grow crops. There is a huge number of varieties. In North America alone, it is said that there are 3,500 bean varieties, and less than half of them have been inventoried. That was my first example.
The Agriculture and Agri-food Canada project consisted in visiting the communities, studying the DNA of the varieties, listing their characteristics and protecting them. It's an agreement that was made in the wake of the Paris Agreement on climate change, which rallied all of the countries of the world. The Iroquoians still grow and eat these local varieties. Many indigenous farmers would like to grow these products, but as I mentioned earlier, there are problems. If they invest everything in a crop and it is destroyed by a summer drought, they can lose everything if crop insurance does not cover organic products. That problem may be solved by the new Canadian Agricultural Partnership.
I can't speak for the rest of Canada, but there are a lot of problems regarding indigenous agriculture in Quebec, notably with respect to funding. As I said earlier, let's take the example of a Kanesatake farmer who is 35 years and 2 months old and has five sons. He obtains 2,000 apple trees in a land claim and asks the Quebec Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food for a subsidy. He is told that he is 2 months too old. He gets discouraged, decides to try his luck with the federal government, but receives a very similar reply.
These programs lack flexibility. And yet the watchword is that there should be flexibility in the application of programs for first nations. We have extended families. If one of us works the land, his aunt, brothers and cousins will all benefit. We all work together. And yet we are considered non-indigenous farmers and private enterprises, despite being family or community businesses. Those factors should be taken into account. Often, it's the start-up that's the issue.
There are extraordinary products that could be sold in Amerindian, Canadian and international markets, but indigenous people have to be given an opportunity to grow them. However, current conditions are unfavourable for these crops. I don't know what the situation is in Ontario, but I'm talking about Quebec, as well as the Maritimes, which I am also familiar with. If I were to begin to list all of the issues, the list would be endless.
The programs, whether provincial or not...
I'd like to thank the witnesses for being here today. I have a lot to learn about indigenous peoples. Unfortunately, there are no indigenous communities in my riding or my region.
I find all of these issues very compelling, so I thank you for giving us so much to think about today.
There's a basic thing I don't understand. I had a look at the latest figures on farmers' incomes. According to the statistics, a non-indigenous farmer earns, on average, a gross income of $70,000 annually, as compared with $20,000 to $26,000 for an indigenous farmer, be they a member of the Métis or first nations community. That's a huge gap—a non-indigenous farmer makes triple.
I'd like to hear from each of you. Please tell us the reasons and factors behind the difference, if you would. What more could the Government of Canada do to work with you on closing, or at least narrowing, this wide gap?
Let's start with you, Mr. Gros Louis.
That, too, is a good question.
There is no doubt that the appetite was there. It was a matter of assistance. Indigenous farming suffered the effects of residential schools, acculturation and oppression. We didn't have anyone advocating for us to seek out assistance or government programs. It's an issue that would certainly make for a good study.
The fact remains: in 1910, there were more than a thousand indigenous farmers, and today, there are just five or six. It's not due to a lack of interest, on the contrary. Recently, some traditional lands have been reclaimed. Young families are extremely keen to be farmers, even squatting on land to do so, without an agreement with the band council. It's on a small scale, but they are trying to make it.
Figuring out whether it involves Indian or non-Indian governance is problematic, not to mention what people think. There's a huge appetite, but it's really tough to answer such a complex question in two minutes.
Nevertheless, the facts are the facts. It doesn't make sense that the Odanak Abenakis had more than 2,000 cattle at the beginning of the last century, but have none today. The reason isn't that they don't want to farm. The story is more or less the same in Kanesatake and all over the place.