Zabrina Whitman of the Glooscap First Nation says reconciliation can be a “buzzword” in Canada, and she doesn’t always see authentic examples firsthand.
But she says the people at Benjamin Bridge winery near Wolfville, N.S., are showing how easy — and delicious — it can be when one takes time to listen to Indigenous voices.
“You’re not opening your ears to learning when you’re just doing it so that you can check a box,” Whitman, Mi’kmaw liaison for the winery, said Saturday alongside Benjamin Bridge’s winemaker, Jean-Benoit Deslauriers.
The pair have been friends for years, and one brainstorming session on the lack of Indigenous voices and culture in modern food and wine forged the annual Beyond Terroir event, which took place last weekend for the third time.
Deslauriers said making wine puts an ecosystem at the forefront, which requires thinking about more than just the last 15 or so years the winery has existed — but thousands of years of knowledge the Mi’kmaq have.
“We were not equipped to deal with that. So we reached out to Zabrina to see if she could help us make sense of … what is a very strange position that we’re in,” Deslauriers said. “You know, stewards of an ecosystem that really has a past that we knew very little about.”
On Saturday, dozens of people enjoyed food and wine pairings with a menu incorporating traditional foods led by Benjamin Bridge’s culinary manager, with help from student volunteers from NSCC’s culinary program.
At each station, people would listen to Mi’kmaw speakers from various areas of the province telling stories, talking about harvesting fish or game, and bringing traditional knowledge into university science classes.
For the first time, all proceeds from the event are being donated directly to NSCC to support bursaries for two Mi’kmaw students attending the college’s tourism, culinary, and hospitality programs. Any remaining funds will go toward youth activities at the Glooscap First Nation.
Whitman said she feels like Mi’kmaq gravitate to fields like environmental sciences, education, or law, but there’s not a lot of presence in the worlds of cuisine or agriculture, which is depriving the entire province of “so much richness.”
“If you’re supporting local and buying your food locally, you’re going to get the proper nutrients you need for that time of year and the Indigenous people have always known that,” Whitman said.
“To integrate Indigenous knowledge into the culinary field, to me, will just help create healthier folks in general.”
Deslauriers said he’s already learned so much from the Mi’kmaw perspective of collaboration, and measuring success through community impact — things that can be lost in the “pursuit of excellence” in fine-dining culture.
Garth Brown, faculty member in NSCC’s tourism, hospitality and culinary management programs, said he’s noticed how few Indigenous students enrol in those areas, and is excited about the new bursaries.
The sharing of knowledge when it comes to food and beverage is vital for the industry to grow, Brown said. In Nova Scotia, traditional Mi’kmaw dishes are a “lost cuisine that I don’t think we’re … scratching the surface on.”
“It brings people together, food and wine. And it doesn’t matter what colour or where they’re from, it shouldn’t matter,” Brown said.
Chief Sidney Peters of the Glooscap First Nation spoke at Saturday’s event, which also included Mi’kmaw drumming and dancing. He said the relationship with Benjamin Bridge is a precious one that will continue for a long time because it’s between two willing partners.
For other wineries or businesses looking to follow that lead around the province, both Peters and Whitman said it’s as simple as reaching out to Mi’kmaw communities directly and thinking about how to give back.
“It’s understanding that your actions have reactions for the folks around you. So how can you ensure their success? Because if they’re successful, you’ll be successful,” Whitman said.
“That’s a philosophy not just to understand with Indigenous-non-Indigenous relations, but … we really need all of Nova Scotia to support that, starting with the hospitality industry. And politics. Politicians could do it, too.”