A new weekly market in downtown Toronto that features a rotating dinner menu and several participating artisans is highlighting the efforts of a community group to raise broader awareness about the issues of Indigenous food sovereignty.
“We’re all treaty people, we’re all part of this movement to grow and learn and understand each other, and there’s nothing better to do that through food,” Laurie Hermiston, a spokesperson for Dashmaawaan Bemaadzinjin, told CityNews.
“We are able to provide, I think, an opportunity for folks to be comfortable and to ask questions and to just be part of a community that seems to be gathering every Wednesday down here to support us.”
Located above the Fort York Visitor Centre on the east side, the market is held between 3:30 and 7 p.m. every Wednesday until Oct. 5 and many of the vendors take cash only.
But the journey to get to the market has been one in the making for months.
Hermiston said Dashmaawaan Bemaadzinjin, which translates into “they feed the people” in Ojibwe, started alongside the organization Toronto Indigenous Harm Reduction, and brought traditional food, dancing, music and ceremony to those experiencing homelessness in Parkdale. The group also brought meals to Indigenous elders at Wigwamen Terrace in the Annex.
“The heartbeat of what we do is to support Indigenous seniors and Indigenous folks in the city to really feel like their spirits are being fed. So when we say dashmaawaan bemaadzinjin, they feed the people, it means really feeding the mental, physical, emotional, spiritual sides of who we are,” she said.
“It’s important that people know that Indigenous people should not be going hungry on their own land, it should not be happening and anything we can do to provide support and honour our elders and our most vulnerable, really, we’re going to do.”
Dashmaawaan Bemaadzinjin launched a GoFundMe crowdfunding campaign to support its work providing healthy and traditional meals to Indigenous community elders and residents.
Eventually, Hermiston said there was a growing demand for catering, which evolved into an opportunity to partner with the City of Toronto.
“The opportunity for Indigenous food in Toronto is something that everybody should have,” Hermiston said, noting just one Indigenous restaurant remains in Toronto after closures came during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We really wanted to bring Indigenous flavours and foods to Toronto and mix it, and have what we call fusion. So the idea of the fusion is really honouring the nations and what Toronto is made up of.”
Ever since the market launched in mid-July, there has been a rotating menu of dishes. The most recent market saw bison smash burgers, bison samosas, three sisters spring rolls and squash flatbreads made with bannock.
In the coming weeks, expect to see dishes like pulled elk poutine with Indigenous-inspired kimchi, stews served alongside cider and sweetgrass teas — whatever matches the season.
“We still try to get from the land whenever we can,” Hermiston said.
“We’re taking our ingredients and just braiding them in with things Torontonians really like.”
She said youth have joined Dashmaawaan Bemaadzinjin to forage for traditional ingredients like wild ramps, cattails and fiddleheads. Also look for wild game, fish and berries to be featured.
Hermiston said it has been hard for Indigenous food operators to break into the culinary scene, fuelled in part by a general lack of understanding about what Indigenous food is. She said it’s important for people to understand traditional food and the sovereignty issues surrounding it.
“Food is our calling card. We knock on the door and have a meal with food, and I think food brings relationships,” Hermiston said, noting the group has seen repeat visitors in the past few weeks who have been coming back to expand their understanding.
“In the last year especially we’ve seen a real movement for understanding the Indigenous story, and looking at reconciliation and looking at how to again walk alongside and be an ally.”
Hermiston highlighted bannock as an example. She said it came to Indigenous peoples from settlers, forcing it to become a staple because traditional food sources were being stripped away. As a result, it impacted diets and health.
“That food history has impacted our health today and continues [to], so when we talk about reconciliation it’s like we need to have a reconciliation about the food that we eat and the introduction of a lot of those ingredients by the settlers,” Hermiston said.
But it’s not just fresh dishes you’ll find at the market. Artisans will be selling beadworks, art, clothing and food products. Later in August and beyond, Hermiston said they hope to include Indigenous ceremonial performances and open mic nights.
CityNews spoke with Kathleen, who said she taught herself how to bead and has been making pieces for more than 50 years. At the table, she has beaded burettes in Pride colours with deer hide alongside other handmade items and flags.
“Here you’re going to be accepted no matter race, colour, size, and you know what, I think you should feel that you’re welcome,” she said.
“You see everybody flying on the Gardiner, you’re like, ‘Hey, come down here.’ So it’s just trying to catch the people that are down here, but it’s also to let the people know thatt a lot of work goes into this and a lot of people don’t realize that.”
Meanwhile, Hermiston said she hopes people will consider visiting the market in an effort to learn and show support.
“We’re just building and learning, I think, and figuring out what people want to see,” she said.
“Just come down and shop with the vendors and support our market. The more people we have, the more of a story we can tell as to why it’s needed.”
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