Co-Creation of the Project

Stories from the Production Team

Deborah Barndt

Co-Director and Co-Editor

I grew up in a small farming village in Ohio in the 1950s. My childhood memories are of playing in the haylofts of barns and sleeping with my friends and their cows in stalls at the county fair. We roamed the woods for berries and hickory nuts for snacks, and boiled sumac for tea. My mother tended a large vegetable garden and canned goods for the winter; my father chopped off the head of the turkey that became our Thanksgiving dinner. Pot luck suppers in the local church basement were common. Food was local, fresh, inexpensive and often shared.

On a visit to that community forty years later, I found a ghost town: the lone grocery store boarded up, the barns dilapidated, the fields empty. The current residents, perhaps the grandchildren of my farm friends and now commuters working in the closest city, drive a mile up the road to feed themselves from one of the fast food franchise restaurants surrounding the exit of the interstate highway. Immense tractor trailers whiz by transporting fruit and vegetables from Mexico to my present home in Canada. Tracing the history of my hometown and the trajectory of those trucks is a lesson in the development of the global food system that transpired throughout my lifetime. The legacy of the corporate food regime.

In the 1990s, while teaching environmental studies and community art at York University in Toronto, I coordinated a collaborative research project, excavating the impact of the post-war industrial food complex I had witnessed along that Ohio highway. NAFTA, a free trade agreement between Mexico, the U.S., and Canada, had just been implemented, The Zapatista uprising in southern Mexico protested this latest entrenchment of the neoliberal model, defending Indigenous territory from multinational interests and claiming autonomy from the nation-state. Our team of women researchers followed the journey of a corporate tomato from a Mexican agribusiness to a McDonald’s restaurant in Toronto. We gathered the stories and images of the women workers on the front line of the hemispheric system, the invisible and unsung producers, processors, sellers and preparers in the tomato food chain. While unearthing the impacts of that globalizing system on the relationship between producers and consumers, we also stumbled upon many stories of resistance by peasant and Indigenous communities in the Global South. We also witnessed small farmers and critical consumers creating more sustainable and just alternatives to the corporate system in the Global North.

When I was approached in 2014 by a filmmaker hoping to produce a documentary based on our tomato book, Tangled Routes: Women, Work and Globalization on the Tomato Trail (Rowman & Littlefield, 2002, 2008), I decided that the cinematic world had enough exposure of what was wrong with the global food system. Rather we should be highlighting these stories of resistance, resilience, and regeneration of more equitable and ecological food practices. I had met my partner John Murtaugh in 2012 at the first North American conference on urban agriculture, and during a four-month road trip in 2015 from Toronto to Panama, we reconnected with friends and co-workers in a growing global grass-roots food movement. We found his family friend Fernando Garcia, for example, teaching organic gardening in suburban Guadalajara, Mexico, and my former colleague Gustavo Esteva, nurturing younger food sovereignty activists like Mayans Valiana Aguilar and Ángel Kú at the Zapatista-inspired UniTierra (University of the Land) he had founded in Oaxaca.

I had first met Gustavo in 2003 while in Oaxaca to visit Lauren Baker, who had been a key research assistant on the tomato project, and was then completing her own doctoral research in Oaxaca on maize movements: Corn Meets Maize (Rowman & Littlefield, 2012). Together we designed the first food course in our Faculty of Environmental Studies at York and invited Gustavo to teach a summer seminar on Food Sovereignty, Indigenous Knowledges and Autonomous Movements. Lauren had gone on to become the first director of Sustain Ontario and then the coordinator of the Toronto Food Policy Council. Our collaboration in this new project represented an ongoing intergenerational exchange. Lauren brought her current own transnational work, through the Global Alliance for the Future of Food, and connected us with Legacies collaborator Fulvio Gioanetto, ethnobotanist living with his partner Maria Blas in the P’urepecha community in Michoacán, Mexico, who had been sharing his unique agro-ecological experience and innovative techniques with Canadian farmers and food activists.

Back in Canada, John introduced me to Dianne Kretschmar, then a 70-year organic farmer in the Muskoka region two hours north of Toronto, near the family cottage he shared with his late wife Elizabeth Harris. It was Elizabeth’s friendship with Dianne that led her to establish in 2001 the first organic farmers’ market in a city park, the Riverdale Market, to sell Dianne’s produce. Their daughter Anna worked on Grenville farm for over a decade, meeting her husband Adam there. Dianne had mentored many young farmers over 30 years, including her own son Dan, Mohawk Ryan DeCaire from the nearby Haudenosaunee reserve of Wahta, and Fernando Garcia who came all the way from Mexico to learn organic farming from Plan B Organic and from Dianne’s Grenville Farm. This strong, curious and committed woman represented a constellation of intergenerational and intercultural exchange of food knowledges and practices.

I began to see the threads – from my mother’s garden to our small urban gardens, from my rural past to Dianne’s struggle to continue farming, from her passion for the soil, the plants and the animals to her protegées’ food projects spread across the continent, in urban and rural, settler and Indigenous communities.

Stark questions emerged:

What food legacies are being passed on from one generation to another? Across cultures and borders? Who will produce our food in the 21st century and how?

I invited Lauren as a younger food movement leader and Alexandra Gelis as a younger Colombian-Canadian multi-media artist and York PhD student researching human-plant relations to form an intergenerational research and production team. We began to build an exchange and to document the process, using photos and video as research tools. Longtime collaborator Min Sook Lee, documentary filmmaker and PhD student of film and migrant workers, served as an advisor, and Sylvie Van Brabant, seasoned human rights documentary filmmaker, served as producer for our first phase.

My decades of research, education and activism in the Americas had given me rich opportunities to work with and learn from indigenous communities, and those voices were echoing in my ears: Guatemalan Mayan’s teaching me other notions of time;1 Quechua women migrants in Peruvian literacy classes;2 Miskitu and Garifuna popular educators on Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast;3 Indigenous migrants exploited in Mexican tomato fields;4 Guna, Miskitu, and Mayan community artists in Panama, Nicaragua, and Mexico.5 In Canada, I learned with Inuit adult educators in the Arctic, photographed solidarity with the Oka crisis,6 organized workshops around the 500 years,7 and co-created photo essays on Aboriginal self-government.8

During 28 years of teaching in the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York, I’ve continued to learn from Indigenous faculty and students alike, beginning to understand how the Eurocentric Cartesian world view has reinforced a disconnection of humans from the rest of nature and fragmented our understanding of the interconnections of all living things. Named by some Indigenous nations as all our relations, these connections must be restored if we are to survive as one of multiple species on this planet. Indigenous voices have both challenged our thinking about knowledge and food, and offered alternative visions of how we learn and how we can feed ourselves.

I was convinced that any intercultural exchange had to include a settler-Indigenous dialogue. Since 2015, we have found ourselves in the midst of a very powerful resurgence of Indigenous communities in so-called Canada, where a Truth and Reconciliation Commission unearthed testimonies of survivors of government and church-run residential schools, part of a broader cultural genocide. To move beyond that horrific legacy, our government, and indeed all Canadians, were challenged to respond to 94 recommendations to decolonize and transform colonial institutions. Indigenous leaders had also sparked the Idle No More Movement, pushed for the investigation of the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women, initiated multiple land claims, and lead social and environmental struggles against hazardous mines and pipelines and for clean water and air.9

While we initially sought connections with Indigenous food sovereignty leaders in B.C., we chose to ‘dig where we stand,’ and learn about and from the Indigenous nations whose stolen land we occupy. Closer to home, we found community food leaders like Chandra Maracle and Rick Hill recovering traditional Haudenosaunee foods, creating alternative schools with Mohawk values, and helping us all to reconnect more deeply with all our relations through food.

And so, with both Mexican and Indigenous collaborators entering into this intercultural exchange, we asked deeper questions:

What can we learn from a dialogue between food activists in the Global South and in the Global North? How do we open up a respectful conversation between settler and Indigenous food leaders on Turtle Island?

Food is an entry point, a catalyst for conversations across our very real differences. But our commitment to food justice and food sovereignty is also a common passion, one way of speaking back to this moment.

We want to pass on a different legacy. A more hopeful one.

More Production Creation Stories
  1. “Time Consciousness of Guatemalan Indigenous Peasants”, unpublished MA thesis, Michigan State University, 1968.
  2. Education and Social Change: A Photographic Study of Peru. Whitby: Kendall-Hunt, 1978.
  3. (with Christine McKenzie). “Whose Nicaragua? Popular Communications Across Eras, Regions, and Generations.” In Deborah Barndt. Wild Fire: Art as Activism. Toronto: Sumach Press, 2006, 46-57.
  4. Tangled Routes: Women, Work, and Globalization the Tomato Trail, Second Edition. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2002.
  5. (with Laura Reinsborough), “Decolonizing Art, Education and Research in the VIVA! Project” in L. Davis, Alliances: Re/Envisioning Relationships between Aboriginal and Non-Aboriginal Peoples, University of Toronto Press, 2010.
  6. “OKA is All of Us”, photo exhibit, Toronto, 1990.
  7. “Revisiting the boats and canoes: popular education around the 500 years,” Convergence, Vol. 25, No. 1, 1992, pp. 50-60.
  8. “The native right to self-government,” The Moment, Winter. 1987.
  9. At the time of this writing, a growing alliance of Indigenous and non-Indigenous activists have blockaded major transport lines, in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en defending their land against the CoastLink pipeline.