Interview with Johl Whiteduck Ringuette

This interview was recorded at NishDish, Johl’s restaurant at the corner of Clinton and Bloor in Toronto, on March 18, 2020. The interviewer is Ulli Diemer. The interview transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

UD: Thanks for doing the interview. I sent you a few questions ahead of time so you could think about them.

JR: Mhm.

UD: I just want to start with the first one, which is something I ask most people, which is, where do you come from?

JR: So in our culture – I’m Anishnawbe, Ojibwe and Algonquin on one side of my family, that’s my mother's side. My father’s side is French, English, with some Mohawk background. But I was raised – or we were raised – mostly by my mother. So in our culture we introduce ourselves in the way that I’m about to do. And so, my name is Johl Whiteduck Ringuette. My spirit name is Baapaabizhiw. That means spotted lynx. My clan is Mink Clan and I come from North Bay, and my grandmother is from Nipissing First Nation. And my grandfather is from the Golden Lake First Nations reserve, or from Kitigan Zibi, which is north of there. He was killed in the Second World War so we’re not sure which of the two reserves he came from.

UD: Part of the question of where you come from is also your cultural traditions and ... ?

JR: Mhm. That’s really typically how I just said it. My name, my spirit name, my clan, and my colours, which I didn’t introduce. Those are really typical ways of Anishinaabe people and how they introduce themselves.

Johl Whiteduck Riguette

UD: Have you always been interested in food?

JR: Since I was a little child, yeah, I would say. It’s an interesting journey that I had to get here. I didn’t think that I would do this work. I had help from a medicine teacher. So there’s a medicine man at Anishnawbe Health – many, many years ago, like in 2002 – that I met. His name is Mark Thompson. And he became my medicine teacher. So when I arrived in Toronto I was, I think like 18, the first time I came. And my sisters were both here, but then they went off to Montreal to keep going to school. And I left here and I went back to North Bay, and lived there for a couple years and then came back. So in 1988 I came here to stay. And I didn’t find an Indigenous community here until somewhere around 2000.

1999, or ’98, I discovered the Native Centre. At the Native Centre, looking at the resources there, I found Anishnawbe Health. I eventually got there, and I met a traditional – they call them traditional teachers. So Anishnawbe Health is an Indigenous agency downtown that has both western medicine and our medicine, our traditional medicines. And Wanda Whitebird was the first Elder I ever met who began to teach me about my culture. So, often there can be an assumption that Indigenous people know all these things about their culture, but in fact we don’t. Many, many things, including food, have been completely eradicated from our histories, because the Canadian government made it illegal to practice our ceremonies or speak our language or teach one another.

There was a long period of time in history where two to three people that were Native couldn’t speak together. More than two people together was illegal. So you couldn’t pass on knowledge, and certainly ceremonies were illegal to do. Fishing, trapping, hunting, illegal to do. So these things didn’t get passed down, and then, of course, you’ve got residential schools, the ’60s scoop, the ’70s scoop, everyone being dislocated and taken. All the children for many generations, right up to 1997, the last residential school was closed. In the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report it talks about it being 1996, but in fact I have two friends that are dear to me, that come to this restaurant regularly, and they were in a residential school on their reserve in 1997. They’re younger than me, and both of them were there, so I know that the reports don’t exactly have the right information.

So, it’s a big question, to share the journey about how I arrived in food, and how I got inspired. But I’m going to answer that question with, my parents used to take us – so we lived north of North Bay. My parents used to take us to my Dad’s hunt camps. So my Dad, when he was a young man, he built these log cabins. They’re really rustic. Like literally a log cabin. And he was also a well driller so he managed to get water. We had like a pump water station inside the cabins, and they were both on little lakes north of us. So we would go there frequently, and as a result we did outdoor fires, and we cooked on the fires. We cooked inside, too, because there was an old wood stove. But during the summer months we would cook outside. So he taught us how to fish at a really young age. My brother Doug, I remember him teaching me how to snare rabbits, how to clean rabbits. And our mother used the fur. Our mother used to bead a lot of our pencil cases, our pillow cases. The deer hide gloves that she used to make would have the fur on it and the beads.

So this was something that was done in our family, but no one sat down and said, “These are the Ojibwe ways, my child,” like, “This is how you learn these things.” So what we learned on the land was just from our parents. And, you know, tapping trees, we used to tap trees at the end of our road. And our dad used to bring us fishing, and he was a hunter. So we saw all that, and participated in that, up until I was 10 anyway. And then my family moved from there. My father stayed there and my family moved to southern Ontario.

So it’s like trying to reconnect the disconnect in the history of food. I had access to what people say is our traditional food. Like people say, “Oh yeah, you were raised on wild game and fish and fowl, and so you picked berries and you had maple syrup.” So that's what we think is the traditional food. So now it’s many years later. By the time I was 15, I had started to begin work. I worked in different restaurants, taverns, and hotels. And later, when I came here, I started working in catering businesses. I worked as a cater waiter, I worked as a food prep, I worked as a server. I did every single job you could do. I was a sous-chef assistant for a while. But I never learned about what other traditional food there was. And also, it couldn’t be accessed here. I couldn’t find it anywhere here.

UD: In the city.

JR: So I don’t think I was ever planning to become someone who specialized in our own Anishnawbe food. I didn’t know that was coming my way until my road found its way into the Indigenous justice systems. So I worked at Gladue Court, Aboriginal People’s Court, at City Hall, Old City Hall, for about 10 years. I worked at an agency called Aboriginal Legal Services. And at that time, part of our job was to get food for the community council members that would come in. We had a diversion program, and there were volunteer community council members. So Elders and people from our community would come in, sit in a traditional circle, and we would speak to those Indigenous people who had conflict with the law, who got diverted to our agency. So some different matters could be diverted to our system and our way of helping people get out of conflict with the law. Not very many crimes could be, but some of them could be. So we had this community council group. Incidentally, it’s still organized and runs, and is very, very successful at helping people get out of the mainstream justice system, at least Indigenous people.

During that time I had to – one of my responsibilities was to get food for the volunteers. And every time that I went with our budget to get food it was always just soup or sandwiches, and I began to look around. Like where is... Could we find wild rice somewhere? Or could we find a venison stew somewhere? I just couldn’t find these things anywhere. There was one person, her name was Theresa, I believe, at the Native Centre who could do a venison stew. I don’t know where she was sourcing the food then, but we would get it. If we could get her, we would get it. Other than that, there was no other way to get Indigenous food.

So after many years of working in that system and really finding it super spiritually draining and exhausting because so many people, dockets and dockets of our people, go into custody every week, and that continues to happen here. And it takes months to get people out of the system, and they’re only out for a few weeks, and then they’re drawn back into the system again.

So I used to go to Anishnawbe Health to get help from those Elders and those medicine people. And Wanda Whitebird began to teach me about this very medicine that we have in front of us, which is the woman’s medicine. This is sage. And, of course, this is one of our Four Sacred Medicines.

Indigenous people practice what is called smudging. What I’m doing right now with my hands, I’m wafting the plant’s medicine, the smoke, over me, into my eyes, into my ears, into my mouth, into my heart, so that I can meet the world in the best way. I can present who I am in the world as I walk and leave my home, and that I’m bringing the best part of myself. I can hear, I can see, and listen, and think, and feel, in a good way towards the world. And when I return, I’m supposed to do the same thing, because we pick up negative energy from other two-leggeds, from the world in general as we move about in our day, and we can bring it home with us. So you want to smudge again to release that. So again, when you’re back with your family, you’re bringing the best part of yourself. So it was from Wanda Whitebird that I learned about these medicines. And I had no inkling about them. I didn’t know anything about smudging or – I'd seen it on TV, I’d read about it but I just really didn’t know –

UD: It hadn’t been passed down to you or your family?

JR: No. I didn’t know. So in my family, my great-grandmother, her name was Catherine Coutche. And she lived on Nipissing. She was born and raised on Nipissing reserve. But she married a Native man who was an orphan, and he didn’t have status. So that was one of the government policies. If you were female and Indigenous, and you lived on a reserve and had status, if you didn’t marry another Native man who had status, you were forced to leave your reserve. So she got dislocated from her community as a result, and that meant that all the generations from her would be dislocated from their community. So I knew her until I was 12, that’s when she passed. She was, I think, 92 or 96 years old, around there. And one of her daughters was my grandmother, Beatrice Whiteduck. And Beatrice passed in 2013 at 100 years old. So it’s a lot that I learned from Beatrice about our family's community and how life was.

Beatrice lived in a time when there were no roads, there was no hydro, there was no television, there were no phones. It was great to learn all these things from her, stories that she shared with us. Like the very first car that came into North Bay was from these American hunters. And they had gotten it stuck somewhere, and they couldn't get it out, but they only had a certain time to go hunting. So they had run into her older brother Arthur. He was maybe 15 at the time, I think she said. And they told Arthur to watch over the car and get it unstuck while they went hunting. And they’d be back in four days time. And he got it unstuck, so that little family was driving around, all the siblings. They were a big family driving around in this Model T Ford, this first car that ever came to North Bay, right? So I loved all the stories she would share with us about how much life has changed. Because I would be there with my cell phone, you know, trying to Facetime with her and show her that we can talk to people in the world. Just hearing those stories and trying to imagine what life's been like for her in that time, right?

UD: Were you hearing those stories when you were older?

JR: Yeah

UD: Or when you were a child?

JR: No, when I was an adult. I was speaking to her and asking her all these questions. To sort of unlock our history. You know, who left the reserve and why last? Just trying to figure out who the Whiteducks were, but I know that was my grandmother's married name. She married Laurence Whiteduck, who was killed in the war, and she showed me his seven purple hearts. They know that he was someone who was very courageous, trying to save his comrades. He was a gunner in the Second World War, so my mother didn’t know him after she was six, that’s what I remember. Just trying to figure out the history of our people and our communities and where the Whiteducks came from, so it wasn’t until I was an adult that I learned the Whiteducks are actually Algonquin. Nipissing First Nation is Ojibwe and although the two nations are very similar, they are still different. They are not the same nation. The Algonquin people come from where the Algonquins are – Algonquin Park and then further north and it spreads out up north through there. The Ojibwe people are more – they are up north too, but a bunch of them are from down here and of course North Bay is only five hours north of here. I was really trying to learn the subtle differences of who are the Algonquin people, who are the Ojibwe people, what are the differences and why didn’t we know about it? How did my mum not know that? My mum never, ever mentioned it and it wasn’t because she didn’t want to, it’s because she literally didn’t know. It was finding these things out that really helped unlock my history.

The food thing comes back through the course of the Gladue courts, being there all the time, going to Mark Thompson, trying to get his guidance on what I should try to do better. I told Mark, I felt there was something within the community we could do that would help assist this problem, but I didn’t know what it was. I knew that we had to grow a community, we needed some kind of district, and there was really no way to make changes because systemic racism isn’t something you can see or understand quickly. You feel it and you experience it if you are someone who is within that system that’s oppressed or suppressed by it. Indigenous people are that group. For as much as I know, the United Nations was on Canada for many decades about the treatment of its Indigenous people. How was I going to come up with trying to aid all of the people who have been institutionalized, that are largely Indigenous, the over-representation as we call it. What’s Canada going to do about it? And that’s how they created Gladue court. They came up with these principles of Gladue and how to try and help Indigenous people get released through the principles of Gladue. But the trouble is, we need to get our people before they get into custody and not after they get in there.

So I would have liked to have seen a lot more focus around that and maybe now the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is helping with that a little bit more, I’m not sure. But in the meantime, that’s where Mark told me, in 2005, I actually have another gift. Because I was planning on going to law school, I thought I had to do more, and I didn’t know if I was able to do it unless I got a law degree. I didn’t really want to go off to law school but I felt like that was the next best logical step with the work I was doing in criminal courts.

So I went to see Mark, I talked with him about it and Mark did a ceremony with me where he said, “You have another gift and it isn’t this one. The justice you are looking for isn’t in this system. Justice that you’re specifically seeking doesn’t exist for our people in this system. You have another gift and if you want to use your Gladue tools, pass them on to someone else, because they are really important to our community, and then follow what your true gift is.” And then I was asking of course, “What is my true gift?” And he said, “You have the gift to bring back the Anishnawbe diet to the people. If you can do that, if you can pursue that, it is going to be very, very successful. There are a few things you need to remember if you do this.” And I was saying, “Well, how would I ever do this?” I didn’t understand how I would do this. He said I had to open a catering business or a food business of some sort.

Go research it, start to do this. So I did those things. I remembered the things that he told me, that I would have to do and that is the spirit plates. And of course the spirit plates come with the smudging of the food. So the food has to be smudged by this plant here and we have to create a small plate with all the food that’s created for a catering gig. A little portion of all the food and everything that goes with it: that’s the desert, the drink. It all has to go, a little portion of each on a plate, and you have to take the semeh, that’s the tobacco – one of the oldest plants on the earth – and that plant you pray with. You put it down with the food, you bring it to the land and you offer it to your ancestors, and he told me that’s a responsibility that I couldn’t forget, that I would have to always do. And that at some point, it was going to become so successful that I wouldn’t be able to keep up with the plates.

And I’m here now, I’m in a restaurant, and the catering is going out by hundreds of plates, sometimes thousands of plates. I can’t keep up with how many times the spirit plate has to go out so we have established a way for staff to help and do that but we actually need an in-house Elder and that’s what he told me to pursue. Pursue someone who can be on staff full-time that practices the medicine and understands what the plates are for and get them to do this work. So I’m hoping – I’ve interviewed someone and I am hoping that she is going to be able to assist with this, full-time. Because our business is very successful. The things that Mark said could happen, I couldn’t possibly dream that it would have happened like this, all these years later.

So in 2005, I established the catering business, and I did it separate from my full-time job, right up until 2012. Then I left all agency work and became committed full-time. For almost a year I had been practicing or operating the catering business almost full-time and then, I got hit by a TTC bus on my bike. That’s where everything got changed again, that’s when everything went in reverse order. I lost track of any reality because I lost my health, I had many, many injuries. I sustained a brain injury. I’m still in pain from it today, so it’s many years later and I’m still in that lawsuit. I now have a lot of people to assist me, with everything here, to operate the restaurant and the catering, right? The main teachings that Mark passed to me, I’ve been able to maintain, we have been able to maintain to some degree. I hope now with this new staff we will be able to bring more of the teachings to the actual experience of Nishdish and the food. But also learn so much more about what the food is, and the food isn’t just game meat and wild rice.

UD: So where do you get it, how do you source it?

JR: Well, that has also become a huge, huge challenge, because we had the same provider called Black Angus for years, about 12 years I think, but then Black Angus closed its doors about a year ago. I remember going to where we were to pick up our order...

UD: That was for game or rice?

JR: Yes, that was for game, that was for wild game, but it has to be farmed game now, we’re not allowed to serve wild game. According to FDA laws, even the game meat has to go through a federal plant. So, if you’ve got a game farm, you have to have a relationship that regulates how the animals are butchered, how it’s processed, and that has to be done at a federal plant. A federal plant has to inspect it and regulate how it is done and if that’s not done, I can’t purchase that meat. That meat has to be purchased through that process and that’s the meat that I can sell here. So for farmed game it’s really quality game meat, but it would be a dream to make a reality to be able to support our hunters and our gatherers and be able to purchase directly from the nations who know how to get the meat through a natural process. Which they would hunt for it, and they know how to slaughter and process the animal accordingly so it's healthy and feed their community. So why can’t we bring it here? That’s a new barrier, well it’s not new, it’s an old barrier, it’s a new thing we have to establish to change those laws, right?

UD: So you are saying that Black Angus has closed down?

JR: It has, so now we have to actually order it online and have it brought in in large amounts. Unfortunately that’s really hard to do so, there is no storage space here. That’s why I have this big freezer and try to keep as much as I can here and the amount slowly disappears and then I have to be on that to reorder. It’s a long process, it’s a very expensive process. Because there’s huge shipping fees that come with that, there’s nobody locally anymore bringing it in.

UD: The food you serve is more expensive to get, right?

JR: It’s extremely expensive, it’s probably four or five times more than any portion of beef you would serve. At least four times more, with the time that this meat gets here and then gets on someone’s plate. It’s nearly impossible, well it is impossible, if it were just the restaurant serving food, we certainly wouldn’t have sustained ourselves for the last three years. It’s the catering, the large amounts of catering that we do that sustains this restaurant. But we want the restaurant, it’s what brings people here, to get one plate. It brings a lot of – like yourself – it brings a lot of media, it brings a lot of people who are interested in the culture and want to understand the history of Indigenous food.

UD: I remember the day it opened, I was just – we knew that it was coming but we didn’t know when it was going to be opening. I came home from work, I think it was a Friday, and I came along Bloor and I saw all the stuff happening: Drummers, crowds and I got on my cell phone to Miriam and said, “Miriam, they’re opening, come on down!”

JR: Yeah, nice! That’s a good memory. I remember being so overwhelmed that day.

UD: There were so many people, it was amazing.

JR: I remember standing at the mic here and almost crying, because there was so many people here.

UD: I think it was the biggest opening I have ever seen for a restaurant.

JR: It was, in fact. That’s what CBC said, that we had broken restaurant history as the largest grand opening of any restaurant in Toronto. I was really, really excited and really impressed with the amount of community coming out to support Nishdish grand opening. It’s been successful since then, so it’s three years at the end of April, where we get to do the same thing. We get a permit for the street, we get Clinton closed off here and we do a big celebration. I hope we get to do that this year.

NishDish: Your friendly neighbour since always

UD: Uh, yeah. You also had a vision of this neighbourhood becoming the Red Urban Nation, getting more Indigenous businesses around here and then the stuff you were doing at Bickford, maybe you can talk about that a bit?

JR: We have a plan of action to be able to create a hub for Indigenous people here and it has a lot to do with the history of Christie Pits and Bickford and the river that ran along it as one of the main tributaries that leads to Lake Ontario. There is a number of them that the city had to cover over in order to create the foundation that the city has through its own roadways, right? So, it starts with the history of the Davenport Ridge. That escarpment was our footpath for thousands of years. Then of course it led to the tributaries, and the tributaries are our main way of getting to Lake Ontario, which would lead on to trading routes, larger trading routes that we would go to.

I’ve lived around this space for some 30 years, I raised my children in this area and there is very little green space left in Toronto, and that’s really what our community needs. Indigenous people have always met on the land and that’s why we talk about the land all the time, and all of our practices, our spirituality is based on the land. Trying to gather people all together, well, it’s great to gather everybody at a powwow, in the Rogers Centre or what is now known as the Scotia Bank Centre – whatever it’s called – it’s great to do that. We have done that over the years, we’ll do a massive powwow, but the real, the real gathering of the people has to take place on the green land. So, looking at this place and seeing its accessibility and the history of this area, this land has become really important to a large amount of our Indigenous community members. It really is that specific area we want to create as a formal district known as Anishnaabe Village District. And maybe as a nickname easier to say than that, it would be called Nishtown. Now when a community comes together and they do a naming ceremony, that may not be the name of it. So that’ll happen through ceremony but if it is, it is and it’s a great dream, and I think we are closer and closer to it.

It’s more than a series of businesses but that’s definitely a part of it. Our plan really started with the gardens, so we have three local gardens right in this vicinity. We have one through my business: Miinikaan, which is a four-plot garden that’s at the Bickford Centre. We have our original community garden that I have started with our community members that got passed over to Ojibiikaan. Ojibiikaan Indigenous Cultural Network is one of two not-for-profits that were founded right out of this room. So they’ve got a board, they’ve got their letters of incorporation, they have grant funding, and they have seven staff members in their offices at CSI Annex. They do Indigenous food sovereignty, they do the Indigenous gardens and they’re trying to preserve our languages. We are in the process of creating a formal partnership with TDSB. Hopefully, within the year, we’ll have two of our languages instructed out of the Bickford Centre, that is the plan there and TDSB is in partnership with us to do that.

UD: There was a garden at Ashbridges?

JR: There is still a garden at Ashbridges, that’s one of the gardens. So Ojibiikaan, the not-for-profit, began through my culinary arts course, I did a partnership with Native Child, that’s just right here, they are a youth resource centre. So we did a 24-week partnership on Indigenous food sovereignty land based learning called Ojibiikaan Culinary Arts Program. It was for Native youth, so we had 10 Native youth that went through this program. One of the things we did was that we got gifted these ancestral seeds over 400 years in the keeping from Six Nations. They were all the seeds to a Three Sisters Garden. I took the youth, because we needed a lot of human power to be able to create a garden. Gardens are intense. We got knowledge keepers from Six Nations to come in, a group of women who knew the seed songs, to teach us, to drum and to sing the ceremony that would begin the planting ceremony that would start those gardens. Those gardens still exist, Ashbridges stayed at Greenwood and Queen, yeah Queen East. So it’s still there and that time of year is coming right now. We will be going down soon to be cleaning up the gardens and begin our new planting phases.

UD: How about Crawford Lake?

JR: Crawford Lake also has a very beautiful Three Sisters Garden that Ojibiikaan is responsible for – the not-for-profit. So we created the garden, Nishdish, through the culinary program. Then we created the not-for-profit, then we handed the gardens over to that not-for-profit because they have funding and they have staff to now take care of all those gardens.

In the meantime, I started my own business with my partner that’s private, and we do private gardens for public locations and for private homes. There are Indigenous teaching gardens as well, so that’s called Miinikaan, we have the little four-plot garden over at Bickford, where the murals are. The mural project was all done through a group called Red Urban Nation Artist Collective. There are 13 artists that all got together, we prompted the first project two, three years ago. We did the celebration in October 2017 and then we did the same celebration when we extended the murals and did more of them in 2018 and 2019: 2018 was the first mural celebration with the first Indigenous harvester’s market. So we do both of these celebrations together, we bring in the corn people, the rice people, the fish people, anyone who is working in indigenous foods. We bring them in, just like a farmer’s market but it’s an Indigenous farmers’ market or ...

UD: Yeah, I went to that one!

JR: Yeah! The harvesters’ market. This year we’re doing it again on September 12th. We hope that we will have even larger murals to share with people and a larger garden. We are expanding the garden. We hope to have 2000 people come through. Last year we had about 1000 people come through, this year we hope to increase those numbers. And TIBA which is Toronto Indigenous Business Association, the group that also got founded out of there, that’s helping create and generate this hub I keep talking about. They are going to produce the next harvesters’ market along with the celebration of the murals so it’s really a fundraiser for TIBA. You can see all the interconnections and how we are supporting each other, just like the Three Sisters. To grow in strength in our communities through all these projects. I guess that’s what I was saying, I had no idea what Mark Thompson told me, how fast our community would grow through just bringing back the food. All those projects came out of this little room we are sitting here in and it has just rapidly grown in our community, it strengthened our community and it is with the food.

UD: You’ve mentioned Indigenous food sovereignty, could you say more about what that is, about what that means?

JR: Well, I mean, food sovereignty for many Indigenous communities is really having access. The right to have access to traditional food. I mean it’s one thing to say it, it’s another thing to try and figure out what that is. Because here, our food systems were eradicated. So when I talk about eradication, we have to go all the way back to the histories of when the corn wars took place, and how all the cornfields were burned down, and how we no longer have access to white corn, and it’s an essential food in our DNA. We actually need to eat white corn. There are all kinds of varieties, but that particular variety is the one we get access to here. There is only one place where we can get it and it’s in Six Nations. It’s very hard to drive there and get a few of those bags and bring them back here. Then we have to freeze them in order to produce – to keep the food consistent. That changes the course of the food by freezing it. So it’s not food sovereignty because it’s not sovereign. We've got one person and if she stops doing it, nobody’s doing it so how do we change that? Well, we are growing it in our gardens, but it’s not sufficient to sustain this community by any means and furthermore there’s a whole process to lyeing it that takes hours and hours. I didn’t know anything about that, the lyeing of the corn.

UD: Can you explain that?

JR: Yeah, somehow our Indigenous ancestors figured out that white corn, and maybe all the Indigenous corn, I don’t know, but I just know about white corn. It has to go through a lye process. You have to take hard wood ashes, so you gotta take hardwood trees, cut them down, get the ashes from them and then boil the corn after it is shucked, and put it into the pot of water. It’s gotta be boiled for a number of hours, then drained, then boiled in the same process of these hardwood ashes, drained again – over and over again – for about a four-hour period and that’s how the essential nutrients in the corn are available.

If you don’t lye the corn, there is no essential nutritional value in the corn when you eat it. So I am not sure, to this day – which actually kind of blows my mind – with the process of this, with the production of those nutrients are profound, they’re massive. How much you get from the white corn, after it goes through this process. Then if you combine it with the beans and the squash you’ve got a superfood, or what people call now a superfood, but it’s a wholefood. Then we find out through anthropological studies that 2000 people in one community were sustaining themselves off the Three Sisters. When during all these decades I have been told, “You guys eat meat, this is what you eat, this is Indigenous cuisine. You guys ate meat and you ate some fish.” Like, what else is it? It’s so many things!

That’s why, the whole mural project, it’s all about plants as medicine. Every single mural project over there, there’s over 13 of them, has the plants right in there. The teachings behind those murals are all about our relationship. Human beings have left their relationship to plants and we have to return to them. That’s the work that I am doing now. I’ve been learning for the past several years now, from the knowledge keepers who know about the plants: What is our relationship to plants and how do they heal us? How do we use the specific parts of it? When are we supposed to harvest it? What time of day, what time of night?

How do you create that relationship? The relationship isn’t just growing the plant and understanding certain things about the plant, there’s a whole relationship that was left behind and we have to return to that and re-nurture that relationship. Every human being essentially has to do that on the planet; we have to teach our children to do that. Those are all the parts of Indigenous food sovereignty that go way beyond the next level.

Then you have the same thing with wild rice. Wild rice is a plant that’s absolutely essential to these territories and it’s almost nowhere to be found. That’s because we, as two-leggeds, have destroyed all the lakes. We have dammed up a lot of them so they go to a certain height where the wild rice can’t grow. Wild rice grows in low level lakes. And if it is able to grow there, we’re riding our boats through it because we want our cottages, we want our boats and we want to do these things on the lakes. Those boats aren’t providing, in fact they are doing the opposite. They are actually destroying the very ecology that we need, so when are we, two-leggeds just going to take a break on that and say, “Wow, what was here and what is our responsibility to the land?” Our responsibility to the land and the water is the responsibility for the next seven generations. That’s really talking about what our great-great-great-grandchildren, providing for them and making sure that we haven’t destroyed the land. And that’s it, look back at what’s here and what’s supposed to be here. Wild rice is a huge part of the ecology that we have disrupted and destroyed in many areas, if we can bring it back it provides food for over two million species of insects alone, then there’s water life that it feeds, it also cleans the water, provides nutrients for us, it’s loaded with tons of essential vitamins and minerals within the rice itself. Which is not actually rice, it’s actually grass. It’s also a food that birds eat, it just goes on and on. We have interrupted something massive within our life-cycle that we can help regrow and it’s really hard to sit here today and say, “My people, the Anishnawbe people were known as wild rice people.” That’s what brought us to the Finger Lakes.

There’s a whole story about our spirit guide whose name was Winabozho or Nanabozho. Nanabozho was this half-human half-spirit guide that the creator sent to us to help us remember our ways, to help us remember our agreement with creation to take care of the land. Nanabozho would teach us all these things and one of the things that we got to learn about was the wild rice. He told us to follow it, so there is a long story of teaching to it but in the end we had to follow that rice. That’s what maintained our communities and sustained our communities, therefore taking care of the wild rice is taking care of the water. Because the wild rice cannot grow without water. So Anishnawbe people found the Finger Lakes and have been here ever since. Then there is a whole (inaudible)

UD: Where are the Finger Lakes?

JR: The Finger Lakes are the Great Lakes. Yes, they were referred then, as the Finger Lakes in our languages because they looked like that. There are all kinds of tributaries that lead to all kinds of lakes, so people say, ’Well, why don’t you get your rice through Curved Lake?" Curved Lake First Nations and I know that Rice Lake has reintroduced rice there. But Curved Lake has a nation there and if NishDish went there to go and get it commercially, we would remove all the rice they have for their community. We can’t do that. I have purchased some from James Whetung: he has Black Duck rice business. We have purchased some from him but if we took what we needed weekly, there wouldn’t be any for their community over there to purchase.

UD: Where’s Curved Lake?

JR: Curved Lake is near, if you go towards the Peterborough area – Whetung, Curved Lake, all of those – what’s it called, I have been to the powwow at this one, I have been to the Curved Lake powwow, There’s Alderville, there’s a whole bunch of them that are all wound up in the Peterborough way, I guess you would say.

UD: Ok, you were talking about getting knowledge from the knowledge-keepers but that was really difficult, right? So I could imagine before that knowledge-keepers were part of every community, they would just have knowledge-keepers naturally there?

JR: Yeah.

UD: How do you find them and connect with them now?

JR: I don’t think that’s an easy process, but here, because we have Anishnawbe Health, we have the Native Centre. The Native Centre has an agency called DODEM. A lot of these different agencies have Elders in them, so there is a roster of Elders at each agency. You can find them that way, but you can find them through word of mouth. For example, some of these products in our Marketeria, this product here called Giizhigad, this word means “day” in our language, this is also another medicine. This is pure maple syrup and it’s done in an open-fire way. You tap the tree, you don’t have anything electronic taking the sap from the tree. This company is an Ojibwe family and they have been doing it for seven years. The guy who does this, the man who does this is Elder Isaac Day. I heard of him through different things I did when I worked in agencies. Now I get his maple syrup from his family and if I need teachings, I go to him and ask him for guidance. So it’s really finding out who are your teachers, and then through your teachers you meet other people.

UD: Back in March 2018, you took Miriam [Garfinkle] out to where you were tapping trees out by the Humber River and that’s where I went with her later to pick up some more of the sugar water to bring it back here.

JR: That was sugar moon time, which we are there, right now, right?

UD: Yes.

JR: I don’t know how the trees are running this year because I’m not out tapping, but it’s super hard work and her and I both found that out, going to those trees trying to haul that maple syrup. We had something to put it on that we pulled, but still, that’s still incredibly hard work. And then there’s of course all the boiling of it, which takes days and days and it’s 40:1 for those people who don’t know. To get one litre of maple syrup you need 40 litres (of sap)right?

UD: Did you do that here?

JR: We actually only used all that sap in tea urns. We would put the urns on and leave them on 24/7 and they turn it into a tea. but it never became concentrated enough that it was actually syrup. We used it as maple tea, almost. It was delicious. But no, it would turn this whole place full of goo.

UD: Oh yeah, I have heard that.

JR: Because it all precipitates into the air, yeah, I didn’t do it that way, no. I was supposed to do a sugar moon talk at Crawford Lake Sanctuary, in another week’s time, but of course that’s been cancelled right now because of the current climate. Up there, where we have that garden, the Three Sisters Garden, people come from all over the world to see that garden. I’m really excited about being able to re-plant. Historically here on Wendat territory, that was their community and that’s the food that was sustaining that community, the Three Sisters and of course sunchokes. For me, Crawford Lake Sanctuary is like this gold-mine of knowledge because they discovered so much there and I get to go there and see all the different ways we kept food, the Indigenous agro-ecology, how we grew food, how food was stored, how food was smoked. There's just so many things there, I get to learn. Oh, and the plants I get to study there.

I love Crawford Lake Sanctuary, and incidentally that is going to get a naming ceremony and there is a group of Indigenous women that is turning the name of Crawford Lake Sanctuary back to an Indigenous Huron-Wendat name. It’ll be exciting to have that ceremony happen and being referred to as a proper name that’s Indigenous and more people will get to learn about how important our agro-ecology was and our food systems. Our food systems and our relationships to plants and how we all have Indigenous ancestors, all of us. Every single person on the Earth has Indigenous ancestors. It’s all within our DNA, to go back, find those things out, and know that every single nation across the planet had Indigenous ancestral roots that we’re studying the roots and that is what Ojibiikaan means.

In Ojibwe Ojibiikaan means “root”. That’s why we called that culinary program, that. Those youth helped build that garden and from there, it became a not-for-profit. It’s really becoming the roots of the community. Really going back to: What was in our grand medicine societies and the Ojibwe people were a grand medicine society. All of their relationships were to plants. Everybody’s grandparents knew about what the plants were and how they helped us. It wasn’t like how we do things now, like we’ll often say, “I’m not feeling well, my throat is kinda sore, I guess I’ll drink some tea or have this herbal tea.” These were things that were in our everyday lives as preventive measures as to not have those things happen. So now we are backwards, we wait to be sick and then we look for the medicine. The medicines were so well known so well used and utilised in our lives that we often weren’t sick. But if we did get sick, we knew which plants to go to. That’s the information I long for now. I’m learning about all the food systems and learning about plants I had no idea. I just did sunchokes three ways for a diabetes group, an Indigenous diabetes group.

[The interview was interrupted for a few minutes at this point because someone came to the door whom Johl had to talk to.]

JR: ...questions by just talking and talking...

UD: That’s the idea! I was going to ask you about, remembering our previous conversation, you were talking about wheat and dairy were not part of your diet and how you were trying to avoid that.

JR: Yes, it’s a long journey to have to be the bearer of bad news because many of our nations don’t know that. Because of course if we talk about how the food systems were eradicated, we know that the buffalo were destroyed by the millions in order to crush the way of life of all the plains Indigenous people and that worked really well. But in 1880 what worked better to create a new source of food was Red Fife was brought in and they began planting wheat, for the first time that plant was brought here. So Indigenous people, and it has been proven, don’t have the enzymes to digest wheat and of course wheat is in everything now and so is dairy. Of course, there were no cows here. So we can turn to science and look at it, it really is science that says it takes many, many, many generations before you adapt to a new mainstream source of food like that. It’s possible, I guess, I’m not a scientist, that we could have certain amounts of it, but it couldn’t be the main focus of our diets and of course, the Canadian diet is that. It’s wheat and dairy, largely. It’s fruits and vegetables but then again, even those are not from here. So Indigenous people had fruit trees, and we have all kinds of fruit trees still, but how accessible is that fruit? Take for example, the pawpaw tree if you have heard of that tree, it is an indigenous tree that was here by the millions and it got decimated by this very city that we are in, that was built here. It killed off those fruit trees and of course that tree needs its indigenous bees and these same indigenous bees are suffering now as we know because there is a lot of focus on the honeybee. What people don’t understand is that the honeybee actually impacts, in a negative way, indigenous bees. Most importantly we need indigenous bees here because they support the ecology of all the other plants that are here. Which is why we grow indigenous pollinator gardens.

That’s what we teach through my business Miinikaan and also what we teach the public through our teaching gardens at Ojibiikaan. So it’s very important connections of the food and the ecology that’s here, they go hand in hand with Indigenous food sovereignty, we have to know these things, like that bannock isn’t a traditional food. But our people were extremely resourceful in taking that ration that John A Macdonald provided to the reserves after they outlawed hunting, trapping, and fishing and starved out the people. They gave them what is known as the five white foods. Which is sugar, salt, flour, milk, and lard. All of those things are what completely decimated our health. It’s why we have diabetes now. The number one epidemic in our community is diabetes and it’s been an epidemic for five decades. It’s not new and it’s all happened due to our lack of knowledge of what our traditional food is and access to that food. So we really need a strong educational revolution through food so that we can go back to and bring it back to our diet so we can save the next generation. So that’s the long way of saying what is Indigenous food sovereignty, that’s a big part of it.

UD: Do you have any connections with people on Manitoulin?

JR: Yeah, I actually do some of my plant learning there, there’s a number of people I know that live there. But one of the people I have tried to reach out many times and have had the very great pleasure of meeting, is a young man named Joseph Pitawanakwat and he has a business in Peterborough but he is from Omni Kaning, which is on Manitoulin. Joseph and his partner have a business called Creators Garden and it’s a wonderful thing to learn the things I have learned through Joseph Pitawanakwat and his work in direct relationship with the plants. There are also a couple of medicines I have been looking for for many years that I had access to very briefly in my life, one of them is called ashkimodeke and I needed to get access to that medicine but the last person I knew, who knew how to make it, passed away. So I didn’t know how I would find it again but there were many plant people who knew how to recreate this medicine and it is a really powerful immune booster. It’s good for everyone to have, but that is my journey. My journey is trying to learn the tree medicines and the plant medicines. I think I was saying earlier, my partner and I were creating a whole new batch of elderberry because we finished our batch and it’s an antiviral. It’s loaded with all kinds of other nutrients and vitamins but antivirals are really important at this time, to be building our immune system with the plants.

UD: Did you ever meet the people who ran the Abby’s restaurant in M’Chigeeng?

JR: Abby’s restaurant? No, I don’t think I did.

UD: Miriam and I went there a number of times, because we were often there up in Manitoulin. The man who started it, Ron Ense, he lived in Toronto for a number of years. He went to chef school, I guess, and then went back to M’Chigeeng and opened this restaurant. Serving only Indigenous food.

JR: I’d love to meet him!

UD: Unfortunately he passed away about three years ago. He was doing restaurant plus catering. He was doing what you are doing, but when he passed away his niece took it over and she is only doing catering now. It was really good food and really nice atmosphere. I remember one time, Miriam and I had dinner there and he came over and chatted with us. Then we went back the next night and he said to us, “Oh, you are back again! I take that as a compliment.”

JR: It feels like Miriam had a special relationship with plants. I really got the feeling that she understood a lot about plants that I did not understand. But there are words I don’t have because I can’t speak the language and I know that a lot of the teachings are within the language. Once you understand a word and you see how the word is broken down, you start to understand the whole picture of what the word means according to the plant. And to whatever else you are talking about, but plants particularly. Plant medicine is the driving force of this food. The Three Sisters has a specific teaching and it is the number one most frequently requested food from this restaurant.

UD: My favourite!

JR: Getting the white corn is such a hard thing to do, what other restaurant faces those facts? Nobody does. If I didn’t put white corn in there, I could make that dish left, right and centre but because there is white corn in every dish, it’s a long journey to get that. A part of it is us trying to figure out how to make white corn sustainable, how are we going to find a source that is continuous? We really want to create the opportunity for large urban gardens within the GTA, maybe even on the outside of the cityskirts where there is more land. We need to make this opportunity and that’s what Ojibiikaan and Miinikaan are doing. Every talk I do within Nishdish, are talks about food sovereignty, asking people where they can, to return the land so we can grow those gardens. So we can start to create that continuous line of Three Sisters and sunchoke. Sunchoke is another big one because that particular food does a natural level of the blood sugar. So, of course, Indigenous people should be eating that food and it grows everywhere here, it is an incredible food source.

UD: Did you get the waffle recipe together?

JR: Not yet! But I’m going to keep working on that, but I now have sunchokes in every garden, so that’s a good thing. I have now access to them, it’s a matter of how I turn that into a bread. That’s another thing, we want to turn people away from wheat but you cannot take one thing if you don’t have something to replace it with. It is a long journey, Indigenous food sovereignty is a long journey because it’s not just trying to figure out what the food is. It’s also once we figure out what it is, we can’t access it. We have to go through this whole journey of trying to make it sustainable. You know, wild rice is not next door and it should be. I have to get it all the way from Saskatchewan or from Winnipeg. That’s where I’m getting our commercial wild rice. Thank goodness I have access to it and I can bring it to the people, but if those food sources fail, then we have none. We should be able to get it right here. Then again we are trying to find lakes, low level lakes where we can re-grow wild rice and may be able to harvest it. Those are the two big ones, but there are many more, so many more. Having to get farmed game is a big issue, I could never put moose on a plate here because you cannot farm moose. That will never be on the menu here until we change food laws. It’s a much different restaurant than any restaurant that is usually able to access their food.

UD: Do you serve fish?

JR: Yes, all kinds. The biggest one we sell is salmon. We do a lot of salmon, we smoke it on cedar planks, arctic char, and sometimes white fish, and of course trout. But we do bring those in from different communities because they are allowed to sell at the farmers’ market, and we do get them from direct sources sometimes. There are different times of the year when they get the fish.

UD: You used to buy from Andrew Akiwenzie?

JR: Yes, so that family has stopped fishing, because there are so many different species missing in their home community at Georgian Bay. So they’ve now created a not-for-profit organization, which is about to do a massive fundraiser to one: finish the book they started on fisherman stories and two: purchase the new monitoring equipment they need to show the ministries, this is how many species are missing from the lakes and this is why you cannot replenish with trout when we're missing all these other species. They have actually stopped their way of life, they had been fishing for many generations. The Akiwenzies are doing something called the Fisherman’s Ball and they just had to postpone it, it was supposed to be at the end of April. There’s going to be all these chefs that are going help trying fundraise with them.

UD: Is that up there?

JR: No, it’s going to be here at Palais Royale on Lakeshore, now they've said they are going to do it in the fall. Then again, access to fish will be a harder thing to come by. It’s a hard journey, a long journey but I think it means the plants become that much more of a focal point to understand how we can live much larger lives, diet-wise on plant life. Rely less on fish and game and poultry. The source for Indigenous people, if had we access to game, we would need much less meat because that is what was determined by the food lines they studied, at least through the Huron-Wendat diet, gaming was the last on their chart of Indigenous foods, of intake through the studies that they did. Which is incredibly important information for me to learn because that how we learn all these things about the Three Sisters and the sunchokes. It’s a great celebration of learning all this new information that we need but it’s also a very difficult time, because we look at the challenges for getting this food and it’s enormous. I don’t know how long we can sustain this process, but if we can find places to create urban Indigenous gardens, on a larger scale, we will be able to do it. Lower-level lakes, that are undisturbed, if we can find that and I believe we can, then we will also be able to bring back wild rice, to some degree, at least for this community.

UD: All right, well, thank you so much.

JR: You’re welcome.

UD: I hope we make it through this virus situation [Covid-19] unscathed.

JR: I think so, with the help of the plants I feel really confident that it’s a true reality for me and my family and those people I share the knowledge of the plants with. Lemon balm is a great one, liquorice mint, there’s a bunch of [plants] that are really helpful as an immune boost and also as antiviral. That is just common sense, but truly we cannot constantly isolate ourselves because we are creatures that need to have a social aspect in our lives. It’s important to be able to come out and see one another, hopefully this doesn’t last too long.

[Note: This interview was recorded just as public health measures including lockdowns related to the Covid-19 pandemic were coming into effect in March 2020. NishDish, Johl’s restaurant and catering business, where this interview was recorded, had to shut down shortly after this interview took place.]


NishDish, corner of Clinton and Bloor, Toronto.

Related Topics: Food AwarenessFood RightsFood SovereigntyGardens/GardeningGardening/Ecological ProgramsIndigenous BusinessIndigenous CultureInterviews & ConversationsOjibwayPlants & Indigenous PeopleWild Rice