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This is the fourteenth writer interview on In Digestion, a weekly survey of the best food media on the web, and why you should care about it. If you like this newsletter, please follow @in_digestion and @jameskhansen on Twitter, and forward it to a large number of people. It should feel like too many. It won’t be enough. Thank you.
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This edition of the newsletter is for everyone.
Zoe Heaps Tennant’s latest piece, The New Lobster Wars, is essential reading both to understand this interview and to understand the long, painful history of the Mi'kmaq Nation’s attempts to assert its Indigenous rights on the East Coast of Canada.
For there to be new lobster wars, so too must there be old ones. The understanding that one version of a story needs its fellows, and that the story happening now is both a lived, total reality and another citation in a story longer still is a hallmark of her work. For context on the story longer still as it pertains to the Mi’kmaq Nation and Indigenous fishing rights, Zoe recommends the following writers and publications:
Alanis Obomsawin, an outstanding Abenaki documentary filmmaker, made a film that was released in 2002 called "Is the Crown at War with Us?" — it's about the lobster wars and is important context to what is unfolding today. (Obomsawin is 88 and still making pressing documentaries — she has made over 50 films, she is a legend).
Duncan McCue, an Anishinaabe journalist, created Reporting in Indigenous Communities -- this is an online resource, a term-long course at the University of British Columbia's Graduate School of journalism, and training offered at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
What have the last couple of weeks been like, for yourself and for work?
Ha, that’s the tough question to answer these days — but I’m doing alright. A longform piece that I’ve been working on for over a year was published recently, and it’s about lobster, and Indigenous rights, and it’s been a heavy story. It’s still occupying my mind and I imagine will for sometime.
Can you talk a little bit about the process of reporting on something which is obviously happening in the present, but is also baked in to hundreds, if not thousands of years of Indigenous history?
Maybe as a place to start … There’s so many layers to this question. A few years ago I produced a short radio story about a Mi’kmaw woman who was fishing lobster, without a license, outside of the government-regulated fishing season. And she was fishing to assert her inherent rights as a Mi’kmaw person. And this was a short radio piece; there wasn’t enough space to cover this story as it needed to be, and it was something I kept thinking about.
The woman who I interviewed, Marilynn-Leigh Francis, is a key character in the New Lobster Wars piece, and this was one of these stories that I had been working on in my spare time for over a year. It wasn’t uncommon to be doing interviews at 7:30 a.m.; reading through confidential government documents that I had obtained in the evenings. At every turn it was clear that more context was needed, that to talk about one thing always meant to talk about several other things. I’m not answering this question concisely… [laughs]
It doesn’t need to be concise (!)
One thing that comes to mind then is that, at the heart of this story: it’s lobster and it’s the Mi’kmaq nation asserting their inherent right to fish, hunt, and harvest outside of Canadian government regulations, and these are rights that are enshrined in treaties and have been upheld by the Supreme Court in Canada. Sometimes — and it depends where in Canada we’re talking about — treaties can be referred to as existing only in the past. But when I went out fishing with Marilynn-Leigh Francis, on the water with her two summers ago, she has written the name of her treaty on the buoys that are attached to those lobster traps. When she puts those lobster traps in the water, that buoy, that says Treaty 1752, is bobbing in the water, in the present, that has been here for so many millennia. Those treaties were negotiated in the 18th century, but they’re right here in the present. They’re written in Jiffy marker on a buoy. What I’ve endeavoured to do with this story is to try to show the lived reality — from multiple perspectives — of what it means to not honour treaties; how colonisation is ongoing in Canada and what this means to impact lives in an embodied way. So we can speak about colonisation and treaties in an abstract sense, but I think it matters to show how colonisation continues to impact lives in this very, tangible way.
That’s a really good summation of how things like this resonate in so many ways. Something in that piece — which I don’t know was a blessing or a curse — there was recently the fairly intensely documented poisoning of lobsters in the Mi’kmaq’s fishing areas, which became international news. Now, the fact you’ve written this story, one of many stories, over a year’s reporting, shows that these events are taking place in a deep historical timeline. So, as a writer, what’s it like to have something you’re reporting with such a long view come crashing into the present imagination?
That’s a … Very good question. So… I started reporting and writing this story over a year ago and these tensions on the East Coast and conflicts on the lobster fisheries that have been catapulted into national and international headlines in the last few months… Versions of these stories have been covered by Indigenous journalists for years. It’s just in the past few months that they’ve surfaced in this big way. The title of this piece is The New Lobster Wars, and it echoes back to this period in the very late 1990s that became referred to unofficially as, The Lobster Wars. There have been times when I’ve felt like I’m looking at the news in 2020 and I could be reading a piece from 1990. I’ve had to check the date and confirm that it’s not from 20 years ago. There’s a lot of … Sensationalised coverage of what’s been unfolding and context really matters, always, and that’s why I love writing pieces of this length. As this piece was getting sent off to the printer, literally getting shipped that day, these stories were breaking and my editor and I were going back and forth about including something as a parenthetical about current events. What we were trying to include as a parenthetical was actually another story; what I’ve written is a story, not the story about the lobster fishery conflicts.
Speaking about in the past tense, even, I’m not sure I have that perspective on it yet. As we’re talking there’s a pile of documents on my desk here related to it, and a photo of Donald Marshall Jr., a key part of the story in Mi'kmaw lobster fishing, who passed away ten years ago, on my desktop. I feel I’m still in it.
When you’re inside a story with such scope that is both historic and ongoing, how do you know when to start and finish your part of that story?
I feel like when I’ve done a certain amount of research, I’ve gotten nerdy with the reading, I’ve interviewed a whole lot of people, I start to notice patterns. Read one academic article, it recommends another, a person I interview refers to a certain someone or event, the patterns are starting to form — that’s when I feel like I’m in a solid place. With this lobster story there’s so much complexity, it’s really the most complex story I’ve reported on, politically, historically, and culturally, and it’s taken longer with this piece to get to that place. Where there was that feeling that while there’s much more to be written and has been written by so many Indigenous journalists, the sense of readiness to publish it did eventually arrive.
In the same way that the treaties and Supreme Court ruling are supposed to codify and enshrine something that is necessarily outside of codification, what was it like finding ways not to so much translate, but transpose these kinds of ideas and lived experiences into … Words? There’s the phrase in the piece where the Mi’kmaq are able to fish lobster, but only up to “moderate livelihood,” which is clearly an absurdly ambiguous phrase whose gesture of formalisation in reality has no hope of spanning the contradictions and particularities of the individuals’ lives it tries to moderate, let alone any right to. But it has been deployed as a hard and fast rule despite not being one.
Early on that’s something I was really trying to understand — with Marilynn-Leigh Francis, when I first met her, she was talking about how federal fishery officers were continuously taking her traps and her lobster; she would go fishing; drop her traps; officers would take them. This would just continue: she’d drop them; they’d take them. And how is this legal, since the treaties that allow her to fish had been upheld by the Supreme Court in Canada, the highest court in this country? One of the things that stood out to me was that a lawyer, Bruce Wildsmith, who has been working on Mi’kmaw rights cases for decades, referred to the government and fishery officers as operating in a legal grey area. And then the Federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans, which has Canadian authority over fishing, wouldn’t facilitate interviews, so trying to understand what was guiding the practices of that department in taking traps and lobster meant filing for hundreds of pages of confidential documents.
Does it worry you that in filing for those documents, you are somehow being granted a greater transparency on the actions of those departments than the people whose lives they directly impact daily?
It… I’m hesitant there because, as you might expect, Mi’kmaq Nation chiefs have been instrumental to having the original treaty rights upheld by the Supreme Court, and so I’m hesitant to think that I’m the holder of more knowledge than some of the people I’ve spoken with. I’m thinking of the so many Mi’kmaw journalists who have been covering what has been unfolding for some time now, so I’m cognisant of their work as we’re talking about this as well, you know.
There are journalists who have been covering these stories for longer than the explosion of the last few months, and it’s really important to acknowledge their work that has been vital and without the international headlines.
Why do you think the specific stories that have come out recently … not, have got so much attention, because they should, but why do you think they have gone around the world at this particular time?
An article I have on my desk from a local newspaper called The Chronicle Herald, from a year ago, says that the situation as “a loaded gun waiting to go off.” In terms of why there’s been recent attention, this has been building for a long time, and Mi’kmaw leadership for years have been coming back to the federal government saying it’s time to clarify “moderate livelihood”; to honour the Supreme Court ruling; to confirm these treaty rights. So what happened: some Mi’kmaw leaders and fishers have been calling for an alternative Mi’kmaq-governed fishery, that recognises their rights without adhering to government regulations. In August, Mi’kmaq chiefs in Nova Scotia put out a working document that outlined the standards for a Mi’kmaq governed fishery; how it could be regulated. There was a lot of opposition from non-Indigenous fishers, claiming it could harm the industry. And then this September, the Sipekne'katik First Nation launched its own fishery, outside of federal regulations, and one Mi’kmaw person texted me when that happened and said “things are about to turn bad.” And conflicts flared from there. The unrest that’s been on and off the water — poisoned lobsters; non-Indigenous fishers dumping pots and cutting traps; barricading the wharfs to restrict access; torching vans and boats.
What’s important to highlight is that, meanwhile, the federal fishery officers were continuing to seize Mi’kmaw traps during this time. One of the non-Indigenous fishers I spoke with said that the government has driven a wedge between Indigenous and non-Indigenous fishers; it’s important to highlight that the focus on these conflicts between those groups needs to be taken back, and look at how both groups have been calling for the federal government to address and provide clarity on the treaties for over two decades.
So is one of the limitations of the more contemporary coverage of aggression against Mi’kmaw fishermen that it doesn’t cover how the long-term mistreatment is not coming so much from other fishers, but from the federal officers?
That is something people I have spoken to with call attention to, yes, and that context matters.
Changing tack a bit, would you ever consider yourself a food writer?
Aha. For some years now … The stories I’ve been working on have been about the politics of food and I think food is terrific to think with, it’s about getting at bigger themes kind of through the back door; maybe getting a reader who might be less inclined to read a piece directly about settler colonialism to read a piece about a team of Indigenous chefs at an haute cuisine competition in the 1990s, even if in reality, both of those stories are very much about each other. And if I can get that reader to sit with me, then food can be that entry point for larger topics, looking at how settler colonialism is ongoing in this country, looking at how food and settler colonialism are actually indivisible. And that’s part of the everydayness of food and something people necessarily connect to, it seems like, even if that’s become very trite — but I think it’s become trite because it’s true.
Food can’t be separated from land; in this particular lobster story it can’t be separated from water; and to talk about land and water in Canada is to talk about Indigenous sovereignty. With this lobster piece, it’s a story about Indigenous rights, the government’s ongoing failure to honour those rights, and starting with lobster, it’s interesting to decentre the familiarities and associations people have with lobster, and show that you can read the story of colonisation in Canada on to this food, because in reality you can’t not. There’s something too about the embodied element of food — something which only takes up four or five words of the finished story but really grabbed me is that Donald Marshall Jr, an Indigenous fisherman who was so saddened by the backlash to Mi’kmaw rights, that he never ate another lobster. The meaning that is embodied in food that can make it really powerful.
Something I was thinking about that hangs between both this recent piece and the piece in Granta about the haute cuisine competition was this act of having to navigate both one’s own systems of value, and of luxury, and of taste and all of these kinds of words, while having other systems of value — whether of haute cuisine, or of luxury on lobster, or of the federal Canadian government — to work within too; how do you think these kind of terms of prestige and of preservation affect people?
I guess I wonder how Andrew George Jr, who is the Wet’suwet’en chef at the centre of that piece, would answer this… I think one of the things that comes up for me is what Andrew and other Indigenous chefs have talked to me about as the “authenticity trap,” where they speak to this frustration of something either being perceived as traditional or modern, and that hard binary is what ends up being so limiting.
I think that’s one of the worse conceptual frameworks of how the work of Indigenous chefs can be shared. There are two Indigenous cooks based in the Bay Area, Vincent Medina and Louis Trevino, who are Chochenyo Ohlone and Rumsen Ohlone respectively, and are the owners of Cafe Ohlone. They talked recently in a Bon Appétit article about how Brodiaea potatoes, native to the Bay Area, are the traditional potatoes for a dish but they now can’t gather so many of them because of the privatisation of land. So they make a choice to a Russian banana fingerling potato, and to highlight the fluidity of culture; how the process of gathering and adaptation and proximity to what’s around you isn’t fixed. The sort of idea of pre-colonial and postcolonial and other binaries are exceptionally limiting.
Something in your piece I noted on this was the ease with which people can fall into the idea of “on the one hand it’s a restaurant luxury, on the other it’s a daily fish,” but your inclusion of the bartering economy for lobster illustrates how it’s important to respect and pluralise economies, and not to make these kinds of lazy comparisons that actually assume the dominance of one economy over the other.
There’s another line in there, from Marilynn Lee-Francis, where she says “I’m not a lobster mogul, I’m trying to be self-sufficient,” and I think that resonates in a similar kind of way. I’m conscious though as well of not speaking generally because what’s true for her and what her pursuit is isn’t necessarily the same for another Mi’kmaw fisher I spoke with. Wanting to speak specifically is very important for me.
Something else I wanted to ask about in relation to the Granta piece was how you went about communicating the tastes, textures, and aromas of Indigenous ingredients, and how you worked to centre or not centre the implied reader in doing so? What are some of the challenges in trying to evoke the experience of eating and seeing a soapberry ice cream while not … Something I see in a lot of food writing by writers and/or magazines about cultures and contexts and foods that aren’t socioculturally theirs is this automatic analogising to Eurocentric ingredients and preparations, which seems like a particular danger when discussing Indigenous cuisines in the context of colonisation.
That’s such an interesting question… To start with I say I’d love writing scenes. I’ve been reading Zadie Smith’s Intimations book recently and she writes a passage that says “writing is control,” which made me smile when I read it. How some people will describe writing as creative and she counters that, for her. Especially in this recent lobster piece, there’s so much information that could be arid, for a reader — and that I find is a workout, to write that in a compelling way. And when it comes to scenes, that’s where there’s joy in writing, for me, so that soapberry scene is one example of that. And… if I were to share the footnoted version, for factchecking, the lobster piece was around 400 footnotes; from notes and from photos, recordings, double-checkings.
In terms of the decentering I think that’s particularly interesting because in the instance of the soapberry, Andrew George Jr is trained in the "French” tradition and also the Wet’suwet’en tradition and he sees the differing values in both of those traditions. So in that scene that’s what I wanted to represent…
That’s a very interesting way of thinking about it. I guess a lot of the structural discussion in the food writing world has been around the choices publications make in terms of deciding who they assume is reading, and the word choices they make that reveal that assumption. And it feels like there must be a specific issue of this when talking about Indigenous culinary traditions, because in terms of the lobster, the federal regulations — so much has been laid on top of and in place of Indigenous value systems, and to communicate that layering, and its impact is challenging?
One way to think about that for me is to start from the place that language matters, which is part of what we’re talking about here. And very literally, using Mi’kmaw references for place, that’s something which does a lot of work to assert their power and their history and their present in what is ultimately an abstract way. It is not factually incorrect to use an Indigenous place name ahead of a colonial place name, but it is considered political to do so. And I think that’s a necessary conversation to have in journalism and in Canada. In the lobster piece there’s reference to Nova Scotia, the province, and to Mi’kma’ki, the vast Mi’kmaw territory. Both can be fact-checked to be correct in different ways, and in so being they reveal conceptual frameworks. It’s something that can reframe a reader’s thinking too.
It shows that settler colonialism is not something of the past, it’s something entirely ongoing, and for Indigenous people, it’s like, when they hear the word postcolonial, “have they left?” I myself am continuing to benefit from the ongoing mechanics of settler colonialism as a white person living on Indigenous land, and I wasn’t taught much about colonisation at all when I was in school. And in turn journalism in Canada has done a lot of harm to the misrepresentation of Indigenous peoples, with many Indigenous journalists trying to do work to correct it, but then — there’s an amazing Cree journalist of the Okanese First Nation, Connie Walker, who talks about how it can’t only be Indigenous journalists doing this work. So then the question for me and for other white Canadian journalists is how to do this work without taking up too much space, and that process is unfinished and ongoing, and often means stepping aside in my stories, not taking the first person, but I am still the funnel through which stories pass.
Something else which has been quite prominent in food this year has been citation — the importance of tracing out lineages and backstories and crediting the work that has already been done ahead of pretensions to originality.
It’s been heartening to see the increased discourse around that. This idea of the “politics of citation” is something that’s been taken up by feminist and Indigenous scholars in academia, and something I look to as I cite a lot of academic sources in my work, often. Seeing that happen in academia and then seeing the critical discourse around it has been good. I was reading this passage by Daniel Heath Justice from the book Why Indigenous Literatures Matter, and it kind of describes the politics of citation and how some feminist and Indigenous scholars are calling attention to the pressures within academia to cite the same figures — Kant, Hobbes, whoever — and to keep recirculating academic power.
A term that comes up often when I think about this is terra nullius, a holdover from the 18th and 19th centuries and colonial disregard for Indigenous rights. I wrote a chapter recently called Terra Nullius on the Plate, and it’s about erasure and invisibility of Indigenous ingredients based on studying menus. One restaurant codified as local, foraged, etc., and then Indigenous-owned restaurants that list similar dishes and ingredients; but the first refers to British Columbia while the Indigenous-owned restaurant acknowledges the territory it’s on and references Indigenous place names. And I think there’s continuity there for other restaurants to think about.
Going back, lastly, to what you were saying about it feeling strange to talk about the New Lobster Wars piece in the past tense. How do you think that writing about these things can resist inadvertently creating the impression that they are somehow finished, or narratives that have happened, when they are in fact continuing?
I’m cognisant of talking with you about this, while the people in the story are still living this.
Yes, that’s exactly what I’m talking about.
I guess there are a lot of eyes, now, eyes on this individual story and on the Story that is one of history and present and will be in the future too.
Do you think that in the same way you think about your responsibility as a writer and teller of a story that is much bigger than your story, that the people now watching the story anew — now that elements, but not all of it — have gone international, have to consider similar responsibility? That would-be advocacy from an incomplete position can have inadvertently negative consequences.
Sometimes in writing I’m curious about what their darlings are. What was cut. What couldn’t stay in the piece. One writer described it to me as saving them rather than killing them. I bring that up because sometimes in writing there are things we can only gesture to, it’s a gesture to something bigger, maybe it gets taken up in a later piece. And one of the lines in the last section of this story is, in describing Marilynn Lee-Francis’ mother’s home, there’s a banner that says “we are all treaty people.”
And I see a question that some people are asking about this turn of phrase, is it figurative. And it’s not. It’s not a metaphor to say that. And there’s a Mi’kmaw scholar called Sherry M. Pictou who writes about this sentence and highlights that it can’t be up to only Indigenous people to highlight the need to honour treaties. That’s work that needs to be taken up by non-Indigenous people too, and this is something that I’ve seen surface more and more lately. Highlighting that it’s not a metaphor. We are all treaty people.
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