Dr. Melissa Arcand. Photo by Gord Waldner.
Dr. Melissa Arcand. Photo by Gord Waldner.

Unearthing agricultural land use on First Nations

Researcher to study land use and soil quality change in order to develop a ‘roadmap’ for First Nations agricultural lands going forward.

To what extent can soil tell a story to fill in gaps in history? This is what a researcher in USask’s College of Agriculture and Bioresources intends to find out.

Dr. Melissa Arcand (PHD) is launching a three-year research project with hopes of finding missing pieces of land use history on two First Nations reserves in Saskatchewan.

Using conventional soil sampling, remote sensing techniques, oral history and recorded data, the transdisciplinary research team she is leading is aiming for a more comprehensive idea of how reserve land was managed in an era when government policy—while never explicitly prohibiting Indigenous people from farming reserve land—used numerous methods to discourage them from doing so.

The ultimate goal of the miyo mâmawi atoskewin ("All working together in a good way”) project is to develop a “roadmap” for reserves facing land use decisions today, co-developing the tools to protect their historically based rights in the event of disagreements over how their land should be managed and by who.

 “We are going to combine the use of historical soil survey data as well as soil sampling to look at some of the historical and contemporary effects of agricultural land use on agricultural capability and soil quality,” said Arcand, a soil biogeochemist with the Department of Soil Science.

She is also hoping to extend the notion of capability to include Indigenous values of the land, which go beyond strictly economic outcomes of agricultural production. 

“But in order to do that we are going to have to talk to community members and access and use oral history methodologies to get the really refined detail required to make sense of the biophysical information we collect.”

Arcand is one of five USask early career researchers who have each been awarded $250,000 over two years through a new federal fund. The New Frontiers in Research Fund has been designed to promote exploratory research that crosses disciplinary boundaries and enables researchers to take risks and be innovative.

Conflicting values between First Nations residents and non-Indigenous leaseholders have led to disagreements over land use in some communities in recent years, said Arcand.

“There have been concerns about the extent farmers are enacting best practices where it comes to preventing herbicide and pesticide drift, their use of tillage and approach to crop rotations, for example.

“We’re kind of shifting towards agriculture that may not necessarily be farmed by First Nations but is still impacting the sustainability of their land and their ability to ensure they are gaining the full economic benefits of that land.”

One challenge is historical land use arrangements that may have been made between individuals but were not necessarily sanctioned by the band.

“Those historical arrangements can really impact the present-day conflict within a community or identify people in decision-making power. There is a lot of nuance to this and it's very complex. There is a lot of history there so it's very important to not ignore that history,” she said.

The research, which will take place on a First Nation in Treaty 4 and another in Treaty 6, will start with talking to the Chief and Council of both reserves. Both First Nations have a long and dynamic history of agriculture on their reserve lands, said Arcand.

 “Our main contacts for both communities are through the lands and resources departments; the on-the-ground people who are doing the day-in and day-out implementation of land management policy.

“Through our contact with those folks we’ll get in touch with anyone who has knowledge of local agricultural land use history. Examples may include any farmers who have a good living memory of the history of the area or elders who may have stories of the time when land may have been broken for agriculture.”

Arcand would like to take the historical research as far back as she can—to the treaty signings if possible.

“Obviously there’s no one with us who would have been there but there certainly would be some elders who would have stories passed down from their predecessors. If we can start linking some of those older stories to what we see in the present day I think that would be really interesting.”

She also has access to audio interviews which could provide insight into land use in both communities. “I’m working with Winona Wheeler with the Department of Indigenous Studies. She has a wealth of old audio transcripts of elders from various locations across the Prairies.

It's very likely we will find little snippets of information that relate to when land was cleared or the important areas for food harvesting, hunting, and berry and root picking. All of that will be very interesting information to compute together to reconstruct that historical land use piece.”

This is a subject close to Arcand’s heart. Despite government efforts otherwise, handfuls of Indigenous people have consistently farmed using European techniques ever since settlers introduced them to North America. Arcand’s family was among them.

“My parents farmed for 37 years on a conventional grain farm an hour north of Saskatoon on the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation,” said Arcand.

“Throughout my whole life I have been aware of some of the challenges that First Nations farmers face that are distinct from what the general farm population generally has to contend with.”

First Nations hold as much as four million acres of reserve land under conventional agricultural production in Saskatchewan alone, said Arcand. However, most of this land is farmed by non-Indigenous producers. 

“That has been the case since the Indian Act in the late 1800s,” she said. “First Nations people took up agriculture quite quickly, quite readily and quite easily. Thinking back to the late 1800s, there were many Indigenous farmers who competed quite successfully among the broader community.”

However, a strain of policies—such as the pass and permit systems which required an Indian agent or farm instructor to sign off on transactions before Indigenous farmers could sell their produce—hampered their progress. Barriers to market entry remain today, said Arcand. Perhaps the biggest hurdle is lack of access to loans.

“Because we don't own our own land we just don't have the capital to use as collateral. That has been a perennial problem.”

Story from Agknowledge, Fall 2019.

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