Michaela Bohunicky

Confronting settler colonialism in food systems: Exploring food movement organizations in Australia and Canada …Reflections on field work abroad

December 2019

By Michaela Bohunicky, RD, MHSc Candidate, Lakehead University

Supervisor: Dr. Charles Levkoe, Canada Research Chair in Sustainable Food Systems

Settler colonialism is described as a structure, rather than a past event, that aims to systematically eliminate Indigenous peoples and replace them with a settler society (Wolfe, 2006). Canada’s existence today, including its spaces, systems, and stories, is built from and around this structure, whose one key element is land (Lowman & Barker, 2015). In Canada, agriculture was (and remains) the primary method of securing and controlling Indigenous land for settlers. In this way, settler colonialism is intimately connected to food and agriculture. Considering this, we cannot strive towards more sustainable, healthy, and just food systems without addressing settler colonialism. Yet, the issue has received far too little attention in food system literature and practice.

Through my research based at Lakehead University’s Sustainable Food Systems Lab in Thunder Bay, Ontario, I sought to answer the question: how are food movement organizations addressing issues of settler colonialism? While half of my data were collected in Thunder Bay, travelling to Australia was an important opportunity to explore and compare tangible examples of how settler colonialism is being navigated within the context of food movements in two places that are worlds apart. Despite the distance between Canada and Australia, settler colonialism manifests in incredibly similar, yet nuanced ways. And, while recognizing the importance of doing work with and around our own communities, we can’t forget that settler colonialism is embedded throughout all levels of society. Our efforts need to reflect that and carve pathways for collaboration across boundaries and scales.

During the summer of 2019, I travelled to Australia for two and a half months as a visiting scholar. With the support of a Mitacs Globalink Research Award and FLEdGE, I spent my time in Australia being hosted by and volunteering with Dr. Nick Rose, the William Angliss Institute, and Sustain: The Australian Food Network, while also collecting data to inform my master’s thesis. Data collection was comprised of 12 formal research interviews with 16 diverse individuals from mostly settler-based organizations involved in food movement work. These organizations were either actively addressing or were interested and ready to address issues of settler colonialism.

One way that settler colonialism has manifested in Australia is through the recent mainstream, settler uptake of native foods and the lack of attention paid to who gets access to these foods and for whose benefit. People that I interviewed described issues of inequitable access to land and market opportunities to grow and sell native foods, appropriation of native foods in the culinary world, and exploitation of native plants for the pharmaceutical, cosmetic, wellness and nutrition industries. Settler colonialism was described as a total blind spot in food systems work with many barriers to meaningfully confronting it, including time, fear, trust, and unfamiliarity with settler colonialism as a structure.

Particularly meaningful and impactful moments during my time in Australia include my interview with Bruce Pascoe, acclaimed Indigenous writer and author of Dark Emu, at his farm in Gypsy Point, Victoria; my participation on a panel titled Reconciliation and Sovereignty: Land Food & Energy at Melbourne’s William Angliss Institute; and attending a talk by Charles Massey, regenerative farmer and author of Call of the Reed Warbler in Bendigo, Victoria.

My time in Australia reinforced that there is keen interest from food movement organizations to begin the long and messy process of detangling themselves and their work from settler colonialism. A key part of this is learning from the trials and errors of others engaged in this work. There is potential that through learning about best practices, or even about settler colonialism more generally, space opens up for more honest, uncomfortable, unsettling reflections and conversations. My hope is that this work will help do that.

Have questions, comments, or interest in seeing where this research goes? Please email me at mbohunic@lakeheadu.ca


Lowman, E. M., & Barker, A. J. (2015). Settler: Identity and colonialism in 21st century Canada. Winnipeg, MB: Fernwood.

Wolfe, P. (2006). Settler colonialism and the elimination of the native. Journal of Genocide Research, 8(4), 387–409. https://doi.org/10.1080/14623520601056240

Recommended Readings:

Mayes, C. (2018). Unsettling food politics: Agriculture, dispossession and sovereignty in Australia. London, UK: Rowman & Littlefield International.

Pascoe, B. (2018). Dark emu: Aboriginal Australia and the birth of agriculture. London, UK: Scribe Publications.