Why does Canada have so few First Nations restaurants? It’s certainly changing—for the better—but Nikki Bayley finds out why Indigenous dishes are only now appearing on menus.
One of the (many) things I adore about Canada is how people talk about the country being a mosaic, not a melting pot. The idea that each little piece helps form a greater whole—rather than losing its identity to melt into a homogenous mass—has always appealed.
And that mosaic shines brightest in Canada’s culinary scene where food from the land and sea is celebrated in the hands of many different cultures, resulting in glorious fusions of everything from Peruvian-Japanese to Korean-Mexican. But one flavor always seemed to be missing from the Canadian restaurant scene: That of its Indigenous peoples.
But Chartrand is on a mission to change that with his elevated take on Indigenous cuisine. We met at the ‘Elements’ long table dinner, a four-course affair celebrating native dishes, hosted at North America’s first Aboriginal-owned and operated winery, Nk’Mip Cellars, where Chartrand is appearing as a guest chef as part of the Chef Meets BC Grape celebrations.
Over a night of Indigenous food and wine overlooking the vineyards, Chartrand showcased his ‘War Paint’ dish, served up on a bold hand print, to an appreciative sold-out crowd of—mostly white—food and wine lovers. It seems food is the ideal medium to tell the story.
“Dinners like this are the perfect setting,” he tells me. “I can share those stepping stones of information and flip the narrative. Sure we can talk history, but we’ve been through a lot and that will take a long time, so instead look at our contemporary culture, our music, our regalia.”
And of course, food is one of the easiest ways to access a culture. “The dish I made was very simple—everyone’s seen Dances With Wolves and understands war paint!” says Chartrand. “When you represent your people, you have to get out there and speak to different networks, and I think people got it.”
The crowd is proof that Indigenous culture is rapidly becoming mainstream, and for Inez Cook, that can’t come fast enough.
“I think that there have been a lot of positive role models with the younger First Nations movement,” says Cook. “Bringing language back is a big step; there are even apps now to help you learn! And through the whole reconciliation movement, millennials seem to have a very good understanding of First Nations people and what’s happened and what needs to happen.”
Aboriginal Canada 101:
Canada’s Indigenous population is made up of Inuit, Métis, and some 634 different First Nations. In 2011, National Household Survey data showed that 1,400,685 people had an Aboriginal identity, representing 4.3% of the total Canadian population.
Just as European countries have different languages, beliefs and cultures, and have often been at war with one another, so too has First Nations history often been violent. However, their cultures and communities date back thousands of years, with societies based around restorative justice, respect to the land, responsibility to the community, and consumption based on need.