I just spent twenty-four hours in Fort Albany, Ontario. Where? Get a map of Canada and go about halfway up the west side of James Bay. And there’s Fort Albany, a First Nations community of about 500 people.
The idea of my going there began with an email from the writer Joseph Boyden: could I come to the community’s Great Moon Gathering? It’s a conference of educators, featuring workshops on the Cree language, restorative justice, food security, and many other subjects related to contemporary aboriginal life. And oh, there’d be a concert with local musicians and the Tragically Hip. Could I cover the Gathering? Could I do a documentary about it for the CBC? (No, the national broadcaster would sit this one out. But Joseph Boyden asking me to do anything is hard to resist. I still wanted to go.) “We want to show this community some guerrilla love,” he wrote.
Three days later, having travelled from the Gulf Island where I live in BC, I found myself in the Thunder Air lounge in Timmins, Ontario. A young Cree man with the build of Ichabod Crane and I sat alone, the only passengers waiting for a Caribou cargo plane to carry us on. We introduced ourselves over coffee. His last name is my mother’s maiden name; we joked that we may be related. He told me he was on his way to Moosonee to try for a job with De Beers at the diamond mine.
We were up and away in no time. The trees below us shrank the higher and farther we flew. Thunder Air Flight 500 is a frozen milk run: first Moosonee, then Fort Albany, Kashechewan, and finally Attawapiskat, where a housing crisis made national news last fall. The first leg was a quiet, uneventful hour, with little conversation over the drumming of the engine. I talked to the pilot, Dave, for a moment after we landed. When I turned to my fellow traveller, I saw that he was being handcuffed by the RCMP. It happens, Dave said. Welcome to the north. (more…)
Our intrepid food blogger discovers the pleasures of First Nations cuisine at Ottawa’s booming Sweetgrass Bistro
In Ottawa a few weeks back, I discovered a food trend I would dearly love to see catch on in our more fashionable urban centres. Expounding on our restaurant options for the evening, a friend of mine suggested Sweetgrass, which bills itself as an “Aboriginal Bistro.” The small room in the Byward Market area has evidently been open since 2003, but is still in such demand that trying for a weekend table without a reservation is close to useless.
Sweetgrass serves “unique seasonal menus that follow the ancient hunting and gathering traditions of North and South America’s many First Nation People.” It is owned and operated by Phoebe and Warren Sutherland: Phoebe is Cree and grew up near Mistassini Lake in Quebec; Warren, her husband and partner, was born and raised in Jamaica. Both were trained at the New England Culinary Institute, and the restaurant’s menu looks, while tasty, a touch heavy on gimmickry (the “Grilled Tatonka,” a 10-oz. bison rib-eye, conjures unwelcome images of Kevin Costner wearing a handlebar moustache, humpbacked, and rooting in the dirt like a senile truffle pig). On the other hand, dishes like Awazibi Maple–glazed roasted wild boar, elk dumplings, and sustainably caught pickerel served with fingerling potatoes and “christophes mushrooms” raise a tantalizing possibility: the popularization of cuisine inspired by the food of Canada’s First Nations peoples. (more…)