Indigenous Self-Determination and Food Sovereignty through Fisheries Governance in the Great Lakes Region

May 22, 2019

By Charles Levkoe and Kristen Lowitt

When we talk about sustainable food systems and the right to food, it is important to ask: on whose lands? And on whose waters? This question is at the heart of the chapter, “Indigenous Self-Determination and Food Sovereignty through Fisheries Governance in the Great Lakes Region”, in Civil Society and Social Movements in Food System Governance. This chapter looks at the efforts of two First Nations communities in the Great Lakes region of Canada to exert authority over their fisheries. 

Access to traditional or ‘country’ foods is a key element of food sovereignty for Indigenous communities in Canada—food sovereignty referring to the right of people to have healthy and culturally appropriate food and the right of communities to control their food systems. The importance of traditional foods is not only that they are nutrient-dense, but they also contribute to “cultural food security” due to their central role in maintaining identity, health, and survival. Throughout the Great Lakes Region, hunting and harvesting of wild and traditional foods has long been essential to the sustenance and well-being of First Nations and Métis people, with fishing of great importance to the Anishinaabe people. 

Since the arrival of European settlers in the 17thcentury, Indigenous fishing activities have been disrupted by colonialism, a broken treaty process and an imposed reserve system. This has led to a severe restriction of Indigenous control and access to land and watersheds. Moreover, the systems of Indigenous knowledge and decision-making has been disregarded and too often seen as inferior to resource management regulations imposed by the settler state. 

However, Indigenous people around the Great Lakes are resisting. Today there are 75 First Nations around the Great Lakes in Canada, all involved in fishing activities to differing degrees and with varying levels of authority over their fisheries. Our chapter presents Batchewana First Nation on Lake Superior and the Saugeen Ojibway Nation on Lake Huron as two communities with a commitment to self-determination over their fisheries. The stories of these two communities demonstrate different ways of engaging with the settler state to achieve food sovereignty. 

Fishers from Batchewana First Nations return with their catch

Working as a co-author team, consisting of two academics, one staff member from the Saugeen Ojibway Nation, one staff member from the Chippewas of Nawash Unceded First Nation, and the Chief of Batchewana First Nation, we share the communities’ different governance arrangements and aspirations, strategies used to exercise authority, and views on the opportunities and limits of organizing towards equitable fisheries and food systems.

Together, these two communities show the complexity of perspectives and strategies that comprise fisheries and food system governance. As settlers who may work with Indigenous people or read this chapter, it is not our role to make judgements on these strategies but rather to understand them in an effort to build meaningful Nation to Nation relationships. From our research, we suggest there is a need to go beyond resource management that is led by the settler state and to understand and implement Indigenous systems of land and water governance. We also suggest that the food sovereignty movement needs to pay greater attention to fisheries and coastal areas, as these are often overlooked due to a focus on agricultural food production.


Kristen Lowitt is at the Department of Geography, Brandon University, Canada. Her research looks at the interactions among food security, communities, and natural resource management in rural and remote regions.

Charles Z. Levkoe is the Canada Research Chair in Sustainable Food Systems in the Department of Health Sciences at Lakehead University. Charles’ community-engaged research uses a food systems lens to explore connections between social justice, ecological regeneration, regional economies, and democratic engagement.

Ryan Lauzon is at the Fisheries Assessment Program, Chippewas of Nawash Unceded First Nation. Ryan is responsible for supporting informed fisheries management decisions at the Saugeen Ojibway Nation Joint Council, through the collection of data on the commercial fishery.

Kathleen Ryan is at the Saugeen Ojibway Nation Environment Office, Canada, Kathleen Ryan (Anungkwe) holds a BSc. in Indigenous Science and an MSc. in Aquatic Ecology. Kathleen works at the Saugeen Ojibway Nation Environment Office in Neyaashiinigmiing.

Dean Sayers has been Chief of Batchewana First Nation since 2005. He grew up in Batchewana village, a small community north of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, where he worked with his father and brother in the First Nation’s Commercial Fishing industry. Chief Sayers’ experiences and historical understanding of Batchewana and its people have been instrumental to the First Nation’s success and assertions of sovereignty and jurisdiction over their land and resources.


Lowitt, K., Levkoe C.Z., Lauzon, R., Ryan, K., and Sayers, D. (2019). Indigenous self-determination and food sovereignty through fisheries governance in the Great Lakes Region. In: Andrée, P. Clark, J.K., Levkoe, C.Z., Lowitt, K. (Eds.). Civil Society and Social Movements in Food System Governance. Routledge, Series on Food, Society and Environment.

The Civil Society & Social Movements in Food System Governance Blog Series showcases the chapters and themes from the open-access book. Follow along as we explore the governance of contemporary food systems and their ongoing transformation by social movements.

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