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Reflection on farming as a settler and relations with Indigenous communities and new comers.

Written June 11, 2017

“Farmers have played a specific role [in settler colonialism]: the land and freedom their communities gained in the ‘new world’ resulted directly from the dispossession of Indigenous peoples.” (S. Rotz, 2016)

As I take steps towards my farming career back in Hanover Ontario (we’re back in 3.75 months!) on Haudenosaunee, Anishinabek , Ojibwe First Nations’ territory I am taking the advice to reflect on my connection to the land, and therefore the people, with which I work and have relations. (Big invitation to be open minded and hearted when reading this).

It’s important for me to acknowledge that I have social privileges related to how I look and how I function in Canada, also known as Turtle Island. Born into a settler family with European ancestry, being a white-skinned, able-bodied man with an academic education, and having some money to potentially purchase land with, gives me a tall leg up in terms of accessing our current agricultural system. This is largely due to my similarities with the people, and their policies, who crafted, and continue to craft, our cultural landscapes (think of the current and past prime ministers of Canada). I’m going into farming because it’s a profession and lifestyle that helps me to meet my needs—physical exercise, meaningful connection to communities and outdoor environments, control of what I eat, and a way to feel valued by those I serve. Recognizing that I even have this choice is a reminder for me that I have a responsibility to distribute the social power that I was born into, so that everyone can have access to opportunities as I do. The framework in which I farm was initiated by organic agriculture students at the University of Guelph, and has since been heavily influenced by ecological farmers, permaculture, and Indigenous food systems.

To guide my reflection, I’m going to use Sarah Rotz’s article, ‘They took our beads, it was a fair trade, get over it’: Settler colonial logics, racial hierarchies and material dominance in Canadian agriculture” (it’s open access online, check it out!), as it points out specific cultural patterns of importance to me, such as continued colonialism. These patterns, despite being in opposition to my values and actions will continue to benefit me via the disproportionate exploitation of certain community members, specifically Indigenous peoples, refugees, immigrants, and migrants. The purpose of my reflection is to help guide me so that I can support the work by the people who are resisting, surviving, and shifting these cultural patterns, as opposed to continue to perpetuate these patterns.

The general patterns in the article that stood out to me, and which I will focus my reflection on, include the following (you’re totally welcome, and encouraged, to reflect on these too):

  1. Dispossession of Indigenous peoples and ongoing possession of Indigenous territories

  2. Exploitation of a migrant work force, often from dispossessed countries

  3. Existing within a socially constructed imperial border that determines who can come to and stay in Canada

  4. Majority of farmland in Ontario is managed by people with European (white settler) ancestry

note: It’s important to me to continue to learn how all of these patterns deeply intersect (they are not independent), and that there are many complicated layers that have distinct harmful impacts on everyone (including settler farmers). For me, it’s helpful to recognize that Europe is a result of a landmass rifled with imperialism and colonialism, which is part of the cycle of colonial harm here on Turtle Island (North America). We are all a part of the cycle of harm and I am at a point where I can contribute to the end of that cycle of harm.

My reflection:

1. Dispossession of Indigenous peoples and ongoing possession of Indigenous territories

Growing up in S Ontario, Mississauga and New Credit First Nations’ territory, I didn’t have relationships with any Indigenous people (I didn’t know they existed except for some historical presence). It was only when I was in Guelph, Attawandaron territory, that I began to make friends with and learn more directly from Indigenous people. Sarah writes about settler colonial processes for making social distance (power imbalances) between white settlers and Indigenous people, such as creating stereotypes of being lazy and placing their existence as only in the past. These relationships that I was a part of in Guelph dispelled any subconscious stereotypes that I held and brought Indigenous culture to the present for me.

Through these new relationships I also learned more about the stories of Turtle Island, how there are so many different Indigenous communities, and I started learning about my responsibilities as a settler for my education and how to be accountable for my actions (not shamed by the actions of settlers in the past).

During my masters in agriculture (forest gardening systems) I researched the landscape of S. Ontario and how it had been ~85% forest cover pre-colonial settlement. Over the years, settler colonial agriculture and urban development has reduced forest cover to less than ~10% (more information in P. Wartman, 2015). The pattern of landscape transformation—destruction and loss of plant and animal diversity—coincided with the displacement and degradation of Indigenous communities and it’s crucial to recognize that this transformation is continuing throughout Canada (Turtle Island). This is simply based on the strong connection Indigenous peoples have with the land and reinforced by the implications of the Indian Act.

Since doing that research and making those friendships, colonization/decolonization/indigenous resurgence has become a framework through which I learn about and practice agriculture.

So as I step towards farming in Hanover, Haudenosaunee, Anishinabek, Ojibwe territory, here are some things that I keep in mind to help guide my learning and actions:

  • I don’t have relationships with any First Nation people/communities on that land. I am an uninvited guest. It’s a minor possibility that no one will want relationships with me, a white settler. How might I start relationships? Here are some websites to start learning:

  • Haudenosaunee First Nation

  • Ojibwe First Nations

  • Anishinabek First Nation

  • I don’t know the history (plant, political, cultural, etc.) of that land. I will seek out this history from multiple sources, prioritizing local Indigenous experiences.

  • In efforts to form relationships and farm how can I be aware of my subconscious efforts to assimilate as I’ve been taught by the Canadian government vs. respectful integration and collaboration?

  • Land disputes are ongoing and land ownership maintains displacement of Indigenous communities. How do I navigate this with grace, respect, and accountability?

  • Can my choices in agricultural practices help shift farming away from the extractive practices (dependency on fossil fuels, mined minerals, and large scale animal exploitation) that the Canadian Government and larger corporations have encouraged? I recognize the inherent harm to Indigenous peoples globally caused by Canada’s extractive industries.

2. Exploitation of a migrant work force, whom are often times from dispossessed countries

  • Canadian Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP) opens up opportunities to employ people from around the world for cheaper-than-Canadian labour as the economy grows to try and supply a global trade demand. If I ever make use of these programs I will pay them the living wage of the region (just like any employee). In the meantime I will continue to learn about the policies that impact them and support their efforts for human rights. Harvesting Freedom has resources on that.

  • Opportunities for racialized migrant farm workers to own land are eliminated under SAWP. I need to learn more as I don’t know enough about this.

  • It’s important for me to remember and remind others that migrant farm workers are often displaced from their livelihoods in their home countries, economically and/or physically, by colonial extractive industry.

3. Existing within a socially constructed imperial border that determines who can come and stay in Canada

  • The same colonial extractive industries mentioned above generate, to a certain degree, immigrants and refugees—people who choose to or are forced to leave their home countries with hopes of prosperity and refuge in a different country.

  • I grew up with high multiculturalism and diversity and welcome the creativity that emerges from all of our differences. Many people in my parents’ generation and certain political conservatives hold a sense of unfair competition, as well as fear, between themselves and immigrants. Sarah also noted this in her article, which was demonstrated by concerns of economic competition between settler farmers and immigrants.

  • I understand that social services are not as developed in rural areas compared to urban areas, especially for newcomer immigrants and refugees. So in any community support efforts that I partake in, I will work for diversity at the decision making level so that all people who wish to farm in rural areas can access the support they need.

  • No One Is Illegal provides resources to learn and support on this topic.

4. Majority of farmland in Ontario is managed by people with European (white settler) ancestry

  • How do I see myself as a part of white settler colonialism? How am I benefitted by it? How am I hurt by it? What feelings come up in me when someone connects me to the hurt caused by the actions of this long lasting culture? These are the questions that I reflect on. I spoke to this briefly in my introduction paragraphs, referring to social privileges that allow me greater opportunities and therefore more social leverage in the communities that I live. I choose to use my privilege to actively question norms that I learn to be oppressive, even understanding that I might lose opportunities (that’s worth it for me). I see one of my roles as speaking with other settler farmers about these topics.

  • What does owning land mean? To me it means separation and power imbalance. It means fear and an unnecessary need for control. It means displacement. At the same time I know it is financial security, it is space, it is home. These are all just thoughts, though, and I have never owned land nor been removed from land upon which I lived. I need to explore this topic with grace and accountability while prioritizing Indigenous experiences.

  • I want to be comfortable and be able to meet my needs, but at what cost? This is a question that the third ethic of permaculture, limit use and redistribute surplus, has brought up for me over and over again. I’m still exploring and currently my strategies to meet my needs are complicit in all of the systems of harm (i.e., child labour, slave labour, environmental destruction, land theft etc.).

  • White fragility. Sarah cites Robin DiAngelo and her diagnosis of white fragility, which is a term used to describe the feelings of defensiveness that white-skinned people may feel in relation to racial privilege. I’ve felt this and still get a tinge of fear when these topics are brought up. These feelings are valid, however they do not trump the violence on the bodies and cultures of the people most impacted by our society. So let’s talk about our feelings and tap into that resiliency, courage, and strength that the farmers in Sarah’s article refer to. Seriously, call me up.

Those are 4 main points from one article with my thoughts (informed by so many amazing people). If any of this is of interest for you, I encourage you to do similar reflections and I am open to read/hear them. I’m also open to your thoughts in general.

Points that Sarah concludes with (extra reflection!):

  • Land access is a key factor in determining the extent to which our food system can be socially and ecologically transformed.

  • Diversifying what we grow, how we grow it, and for whom, also requires diversifying who gets access to arable land.

  • What shifts need to take place to transform these conditions?

  • Can we identify the logics and practices involved in maintaining culture and material domination?

Thanks to Sarah Rotz for her time and energy committed to this research!



I offer creative community facilitation activities to help have these conversations in an experiential manner. If that’s of interest to you, I invite you to check out my website and you can get in touch with me there.

L. Gehl. Ally bill of responsibilities.

P. Wartman. 2015. The establishment of apple orchards as temperate forest garden systems and their impact on indigenous bacterial and fungal population abundance in Southern Ontario, Canada. Atrium.

R. DiAngelo. 2011. White Fragility. International Journal of Critical Pedagogy, 3(3).

S. Rotz. 2016. ‘They took our beads, it was a fair trade, get over it’: Settler colonial logics, racial hierarchies and material dominance in Canadian agriculture. Geoforum. 82: 158-169.

Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program:

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