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Canadian Indigenous Cuisine

Indigenous food may be considered uniquely Canadian, and the influence of Métis culture can be considered to have played a particularly important role in the origin of a distinct Canadian cuisine. Foods such as bannock, moose, deer, bison, pemmican, maple taffy, and Métis stews, such as barley stew, are all either traditional Indigenous foods, or originate from Canada with roots in Indigenous cuisines, and are eaten throughout the country.

Through oppressive colonization practices, many traditional Indigenous ingredients and techniques were locked away or forgotten. Today, Indigenous Peoples across our land are unearthing ancestral knowledge and learning about traditional methods for gathering, hunting and preservation from Elders. They are merging this traditional knowledge with modern-day techniques and recipes, and forging a path for Indigenous cuisine to take its rightful place at the Canadian culinary table.

The vast and diverse landscape in Canada traditionally shaped and formed Indigenous land and food systems. The land, air, water, soil, and animal and fungi species sustained Indigenous Peoples for millennia. Traditional food sources varied from region to region and included game, seafood, birds, plants and berries. From the whale meat and cloudberries of the Far North to the halibut and salmon of the West Coast and the wild rice native to wetlands from modern-day Manitoba all the way to the Atlantic, the nutritional diversity available to Indigenous communities was as expansive as the land itself.

Food as part of an interdependent ecosystem

Traditional food sources were seen as part of a healthy and interdependent ecosystem. Indigenous Peoples traditionally only harvested, hunted or gathered what they needed to survive, and endeavoured to not let anything go to waste. In communities with abundant fish, for example, every edible part of the fish was eaten, including the head, eyes, offal and eggs.

Inedible animal or plant material was often ingeniously repurposed for practical use. Animal bones could be used for tools, tanned hides and furs could be used for shelter and clothing, rawhide could be used for snowshoes, fishing nets or drum covers, and intestines or bladders could be used for cooking vessels or water storage. Plant materials, like spruce root or birch bark, could also be used for food storage.


In general, most Canadians agree that the approximately 800,000 Aboriginal Canadians counted by the 1996 Census of Population may be identified as belonging to one of three groups: First Nations (554,000), Métis (210,000), and Inuit (Innu, 40,000). The First Nations people are members of the approximately 50 recognized "First Nations" or tribal groups in Canada, and they inhabit all parts of Canada. The Métis are descendants of the intermarriages that occurred between the men employed by the early European fur trading companies (Hudson's Bay Company and Northwest Fur Company) and Native Canadian women.

The Inuit are the descendants of the Thule people who migrated from the Canadian arctic 700 to 800 years ago. They have been inhabiting the territory of modern Canada for thousands of years. They were historically hunters and fishers. Because of the

harsh climate of their northern homelands, the Inuit diet included very few fresh vegetables or fruits. In the short summers, they would gather berries, both for eating fresh and for drying to eat during the long, cold winter. They would also gather seeds and nuts to store to supplement the winter diet. Grains such as corn, wheat, and wild rice were harvested and dried. Grains would sometimes be ground to produce flour, or mixed with water and cooked.

Pemmican is a nutritious, high calorie food that can be prepared in quantities and stored. The French and English explorers, trappers, and traders, bought large quantities of pemmican from the Aboriginals, and even learned to make pemmican. Pemmican would be sealed inside an animal skin or stomach cavity to preserve it. Europeans carried these pemmican stores on long furtrading expeditions.


The traditional diet of Aboriginal people was made up of the animals and plants found on the land and in the sea around them. Seal, whale, buffalo, caribou, walrus, polar bear, arctic hare (rabbit), all kinds of fish and many species of bird were hunted or fished. Raw blubber (fat) was enjoyed or mixed with meat or berries. Every part of the animal was consumed or used to make clothing or shelter. Because the foods were eaten raw or with minimal processing, the Aboriginal people were generally well nourished.

Modern-day First Nations, Métis, and Inuit people have added processed foods and convenience foods to their traditional diet, and are experiencing the health problems that come from consumption of foods rich in sugar and additives (such as tooth decay and obesity).

Their traditional diet was nutritious and high in calories, but the calories were needed to help keep their bodies warm through the long, frigid winters. During the short summers, Aboriginals (mainly the women) would plant small gardens and gather wild berries and seeds. Corn, beans, and squash were common vegetables grown in the small gardens of Manitoba and Alberta. These vegetables were often simmered to make soups or stews, such as Three Sister Soup (the "sisters" are corn, beans, and squash).

Snacks were often enjoyed right on the trail—a few berries or dried seeds plucked from the wild plants. Some were eaten right on the spot, and some may have been carried home to share or save for another day.

The Three Sisters

Traditional Indigenous food was primarily cultivated, harvested and consumed based on values of interdependency, respect for the environment, and ecological sensibility. For example, the Haudenosaunee cultivatedThree Sister” crops side by side to facilitate interdependent growth. These sisters — beans, corn and squash — are very different, but rely on one another for nutrients and protection. Beans absorb nitrogen from the air to keep the other sisters healthy. Corn grows tall stalks for the beans to climb, wrapping the plants together. Squash grows wide, ground-covering leaves that keep the ground moist and weeds at bay. Together, these three crops are a nutritional powerhouse.

And now for a few recipes...actually made my own version of the "Three Sisters" a few days ago!

Three Sisters Soup - The View from Great Island
Download PDF • 265KB

How to Make Pemmican - An Off Grid Life
Download PDF • 149KB

Canadian Native American Bannocks - Global Kitchen Travels
Download PDF • 54KB

Cheers, and have a great weekend!

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