The Thanksgiving holiday often romanticizes the history of settlers in North America while neglecting the stories of the Indigenous people who have lived here for thousands of years.
“It’s a silly question I get asked a lot: What did people eat before colonization?” said Charles Catchpole, an Anishinabe chef and new farmer wrapping up his first harvest in Toronto. “What we ate is what’s considered trendy today, which is eating a local diet,” he said. “Well, that’s a traditional Indigenous diet. It’s always been around.”
With his farm, Gitigaanes (Ojibway for “Little Farm”), Catchpole aims to promote Indigenous food sovereignty by primarily growing Indigenous foods and using traditional harvesting methods that have been passed down from generation to generation. He hopes to continue educating the community around him, both at the farm and at the local markets where he sells his harvest.
Gitigaanes is located at Flemo Farm, an urban farm in Toronto’s North York neighbourhood. Catchpole’s 2,400-square-foot plot consists of Indigenous crops that he either sells at Flemo Farm’s weekly market or uses for his catering and hot sauce business.
It was his wife who saw that Flemo Farm was looking for an Indigenous urban farmer in a tweet in February. Catchpole initially wasn’t convinced the position was right for him. “As a chef, I know about food. But I [didn’t] know how to actually grow it,” he said. “I get the end result of farming, not the whole process.” It took “a lot of persuasion” before he applied for a plot in March.
Among the traditional Indigenous farming techniques Catchpole uses is the Three Sisters harvesting method, where crops such as corn, beans and squash are planted together on a mound. “In conventional, modern farming, you’d have fields of beans growing on fence lances or along some type of trellis, whereas here you don’t need those extras.” Catchpole said. Instead, the corn stalks act as the trellis, holding the beans in place while also shielding the squash, which protects the soil with its leaves. “All three plants rely on each other’s nutrients to thrive, like a little ecosystem.”
Catchpole grows about 12 different varieties of beans, such as Canada Wild Goose, Speckled Algonquin and Early Mohawk. He has planted sunflowers and other flowers at the edge of the Gitigaanes plot, an Indigenous farming method to encourage birds and squirrels eat these plants first, before reaching the other crops. “They’re sacrificial plants,” he said.
As his first harvest season comes to a close, Catchpole says he has learned a lot about what it means to be an urban farmer and plans to continue advocating for Indigenous food sovereignty. He still doesn’t feel comfortable being called a farmer. At the same time, he says that he can’t go back to life before farming. “I think now that I’ve got my hands into it, I’ll be doing it on some scale forever.”