Bountiful Blueberry Season Reflects on the Tradition and Importance of Northern Ontario Staples
People in Northern Ontario were delighted to find patches of blueberries bursting with color and rich, round berries this year, especially after a particularly dark season in 2021.
Last year much of the area was ravaged by forest fires, and the dry summer season led to many barren patches, in turn leaving some of the wildlife without a food source and some communities lacking in tradition.
“Even during the winter…there was so much snow and it was so crazy, and the spring was so powerful with its water,” said Shelby Gagnon, an artist and community organizer from Aroland First Nation.
« I just had a feeling it was going to be quite abundant. I was really hoping there would be an abundance of, you know, food on the land and berries, » she added.
Gagnon is one of the many people to celebrate this year’s strong and particularly long blueberry harvest season in the region. Tradition, rooted in Anishinaabe heritage, allows some people to feel closer to their culture.
“When I think of blueberries, I think of bears first…but I also think of family and loved ones. Growing up, I always went blueberry picking with my family. one of my fondest childhood memories, » Gagnon said.
“I think of my community, Aroland – they are known to be called the blueberry people simply because of the abundance of blueberries in the area.”
Gagnon said she strives to learn more about traditional food-harvesting practices on the land, through her role with the Indigenous Food Circle in Thunder Bay, Ontario, and also through her own journey of cultural recovery.
« I’ve been privileged to learn more in depth about the 13 moons, and with the 13 moons, around July is the berry moon…that’s when all the berries are around the earth and ready to be picked. So just learning that recently to honor this moon that comes every year and to honor all the different types of berries… it’s a very meditative way to be with the land,” she explained.
Throughout the region, in the unceded territory of Wikwemikong, Dominic Beaudry also uses the ideas and traditions surrounding foods, such as blueberries, as a tool for cultural revitalization.
He uses Twitter to share words of the day, specifically focusing on the Ojibwe language, creating engagement while transcending communities and cultural backgrounds.
Language ‘an eye’ on other cultures
« I really enjoy doing this because it allows me to engage with people from all over Ontario, or across Canada or around the world for those who want to learn more about the language, » Beaudry said.
Earlier this summer, Beaudry posted the Ojibwa word “miinibaashkiminisaginibitoosjiganibaakwezhigan,” which means blueberry pie.
« I love using that word. It allows me to engage with more people who want to learn the language because they think it’s an extremely long word, and they get very intrigued and want to know more about the language. rest of the tongue, » Beaudry said.
- Hear Dominic Beaudry say “blueberry pie” in Ojibway:
Beaudry said sharing words like this both sparks interest in the Ojibwe language and acts as an avenue to have a conversation about cultural history.
« People have been harvesting blueberries for a very long time. It’s just one of their staple foods, » he said. « A lot of First Nations in the past weren’t so much hunter-gatherer societies, but more or less farming communities, probably before the contact period. »
Beaudry said the story lives on through the names of people and places in the region, with many popular surnames referring to food or food skills.
« When you learn the language… It’s an eye, it’s like a perspective and into the worldview of another culture. So when you start learning about the language of berries and farm foods, it gives you a different perspective of who the Ojibwa were.”
Earth skills teach respect, care for the environment
Continuing these traditions is an important goal for Joe Wesley at Lac Seul First Nation, where he works as an outdoor and cultural educator teaching children skills related to the land.
Wesley said that in his part of the region, the blueberry season has been unusually long this year, with picking continuing through September. It also allowed some of his students to get into the bush before the foliage began to turn its usual fiery red color.
« One of the little kids said he was going to remember it for a very long time, and it was just something as simple as going blueberry picking, » he said.
« It’s important to be able to bring people out, young people, because we have all of that in our backyards and we’re so distracted by the technologies of today…we’re starting to forget what’s available in our backyard. »
Wesley and his colleagues will use activities like berry picking as a way to teach land-related skills and teach respect and care for the land, which he says is becoming increasingly important in the face of clear-cutting activities on his First Nation and as the climate changes.
“So that we can listen to our elders, those who have been there, those who know the areas. To be able to continue, and continue to talk to our children and our grandchildren, and teach them … about these regions and having their respect for the land. I really like to encourage people to continue, so that one day my great-grandchildren can also go blueberry picking.