Indigenous community members voice concerns about upcoming Tourism Kingston event

Sage burns alongside cedar in the winter snow of Katarokwi (Kingston). Photo by Jennifer Kehoe.

It has been nearly 10 years since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission issued its 94 “Calls to Action” to initiate reconciliation between Indigenous Peoples and the settler population in Canada.

Since then, the question ‘What does reconciliation look like?’ has been asked repeatedly, as Canadians attempt to reckon with the atrocities carried out by institutional churches, the Canadian government, and white settlers collectively against those who have lived on this land long before European colonization.

And while turning that question into ‘What does reconciliation taste like?’ may be an interesting concept, Indigenous leaders caution that it is not a shift that should be made lightly, nor one that should be used to commercialize or commodify the process of reconciliation. Several members of the local Indigenous community here in Kingston have raised this objection with regard to an upcoming event being hosted by Tourism Kingston as part of its annual ‘Kingstonlicious’ events.

But it isn’t just the premise of the event that is causing objections – the event is actually entitled “Call to Action 83: What does reconciliation taste like?” Bringing a Call to Action directly by name into a tourism event is another issue that those in the local Indigenous community are raising, pointing to the fact that few members of the Indigenous community locally had any knowledge that this event was in the works.

The event, which is set to take place on Saturday, Mar. 18, 2023, is “inspired by Truth and Reconciliation Commission Call to Action 83 – for Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists to undertake collaborative projects and produce works that contribute to reconciliation,” according to Tourism Kingston, also known as Visit Kingston as an online entity.

“[T]his celebration brings together Indigenous and non-Indigenous chefs and beverage purveyors for a day of exploration. Rooted in education, collegiality, and respect for the seasons, these culinary collaborators will build a powerful experience that explores Indigenous foodways, linking the food and drink consumed with its history, heritage, culture, and geography,” Tourism Kingston says in its advertising for the event. The advertising pairs this language with beautifully-photographed foods and beverages.

“I don’t even know where to start with my complex – that’s the word I’m going to use – feelings towards this,” said Jennifer Kehoe. Kehoe describes herself as “walking in two worlds”, as a person of mixed ancestry: Algonquin First Nations and Irish.

“It’s the lack of consideration. So, the intention is great, but I don’t think they’re realizing the impact that they could potentially have on many of our peoples who reside on this territory,” she continued.

“At this point in our journey together, I think it should be clear that they shouldn’t be just assuming what we need and what they want to offer. The arts are a billion dollar industry, and you can’t just skip the step of consultation with the Indigenous community and then link an event with a Call to Action to gain relevance or funding. That’s not what the heart of reconciliation should look like to me.”

Kehoe mentioned the arts industry due to Tourism Kingston’s referral to Call to Action 83 in the event. Call to Action 83 reads, “We call upon the Canada Council for the Arts to establish, as a funding priority, a strategy for Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists to undertake collaborative projects and produce works that contribute to the reconciliation process.” And while culinary arts are certainly an art form – and one that has space to work on reconciliation efforts – the concept of using Call to Action 83 as a means of advertising a tourism-based event doesn’t sit right with Kehoe, nor with a number of other local Indigenous Peoples.

Kehoe voiced some additional concerns. At $65 per person, the event is clearly not accessible to everyone, Kehoe said. Further, the fact the event is centered around food makes it more problematic for Kehoe, who spends much of her time working in food security. She noted that she deals on a regular basis with “probably 40 [local] Indigenous families who suffer from food insecurity… they don’t have food to feed their children.”

Mance Wliwini, an Abenaki artisan here in Kingston, agreed with Kehoe’s observations that concerns with the event are many-layered and compounding. Both Kehoe and Wliwini expressed that they support those culinary experts involved in the event and do not hold anything against them. And while Tourism Kingston has explained that Dr. Terri-Lynn Brennan of Inclusive Voices has been brought on board as a consultant for this project, Kehoe and Wliwini said there has not been outreach to the larger Indigenous community at all, fully defying the spirit of reconciliation.

“If you ask one Indigenous person [locally], guaranteed that the ‘moccasin telegraph’ is going to get around to everyone,” Kehoe said, referring to the spread of information by word of mouth.

In the absence of any word spreading within the local community about consultation on this event, she fears there are very real repercussions now that the event is being advertised and marketed.

“Even if there’s Indigenous peoples who don’t come forward, they’re still talking about it. They’re still having circles in their own circles, chatting about it. Like, I could imagine the harm that has been caused to some people looking at what this looks like, how they’ve already felt unseen and unheard,” she expressed, noting that many Indigenous individuals are less public and vocal about their feelings than she and Wliwini are, and understandably so.

“Maybe they don’t have the voice to bring it forward, because they’ve already experienced, whether it’s lateral violence, whether they’ve experienced isolation, whether they’ve experienced some sort of level of trauma associated with being Indigenous in the first place,” said Kehoe.

And then there’s what happens, almost inevitably, when Indigenous individuals do voice concerns about such matters, Wliwini explained.

“It just stereotypes us again,” he began. “As soon as we voice these things – if we’re strong enough and competent enough to use our voice like we should be – then we just look like the ‘ungrateful Indians’ again,” he said, letting a heavy silence follow his words.

Their point was driven home further when, on Friday, Mar. 10, 2023, exactly that occurred on a Tourism Kingston (Visit Kingston) post on Facebook. One of the menu items being advertised as part of “Call to Action 83: What does reconciliation taste like?” is a sage-infused alcoholic beverage. Sage, which is widely known to be one of the principal medicines of many Indigenous Peoples, is sacred, and not to be objectified or exploited, Wliwini expressed. Furthermore, the presence of alcohol at an event declaring itself to be in the name of reconciliation is about as tone-deaf as it gets, he said.

“Sage is medicine. Alcohol is not medicine, alcohol is poison,” said Wliwini, his voice steadfast in seriousness. “It’s called ‘liquid genocide’ for a reason, right? Alcohol has not been used by Indigenous people for recreational purposes or consumption in this manner. It was introduced by colonizers, and introduced specifically by colonizers to ply Indigenous people to steal their lands.”

A sage-infused alcoholic beverage points to the exploitation and appropriation of a medicinal ingredient broadly associated with Indigenous Peoples, which is deeply upsetting, Kehoe explained.

“When we go into ceremony, we would never refuse someone to come into ceremony who is using alcohol or drugs, but they are not allowed to touch any of our sacred medicines. So, if we have that protocol in place, why would we ever infuse any of our medicines into alcohol?” she questioned.

Both Kehoe and Wliwini discussed how they felt event organizers would refute the issue by saying the sage used in the beverage will be “culinary sage”, noting that this distinction misses the point. And while Tourism Kingston has publicly said that the sage-infused cocktail will not be served in the same building that the food is being served in, the two feel this was an afterthought to make it seem as though that concern had already been considered – much like the now advertised free admission for Indigenous persons to the event, which was not initially in the marketing for the event.

“I’d also like to acknowledge the offering of the tokenistic free tickets to Indigenous peoples. When we have alcohol being served, that could be triggering in itself when it hasn’t even been marketed in an appropriate way for someone to make an informed decision,” Kehoe stated.

And, as Wliwini pointed out, the backlash against them voicing their concerns has already started. Today, Friday, Mar. 10, 2023, one commenter online responded to comments left by Wliwini regarding the presence of alcohol at the event and the lack of consultation with the local Indigenous community.

“Why get a bee in your bonnet over this sillyness (sic)? It’s not “reconciliation” we need, it’s revolution!” the commenter wrote.

“My concerns are ‘silly’,” Wliwini said in sharing the comment that proved his earlier point – some people feel entitled to diminish the concerns and voices of Indigenous Peoples, he said.

Tourism Kingston wrote in response to questions raised about where proceeds from the event were going on a social media post. “The event will not make a profit. We secured a grant, which provides 50 per cent of the cost of the event. Tourism Kingston/ticket sales are funding the other 50 per cent. All chefs, artisans, and musicians, as well as a local Indigenous consultant we are working with, are paid for their involvement. We are also paying for the ingredients used to prepare the food and drink, as well as things like venue rental, A/V equipment,” they noted.

When factoring in that the most local Indigenous chef featured in the event is from Tyendinaga, particularly when there are at least three well-known Indigenous chefs closer to Kingston and within the city itself, and the fact that grant funding has been used to execute the event, the lack of true involvement of the local Indigenous community is overwhelming, Kehoe and Wliwini said.

Put all together, the situation smacks of colonial oppression rather than reconciliation, they expressed. “What does reconciliation taste like?” Wliwini asked rhetorically. “I’ll tell you what it tastes like: pretty friggin’ bitter.”

Tourism Kingston was not able to accommodate an interview with Kingstonist by time of publication after a week of attempts to arrange one. An interview with the local tourism organization has been arranged for Monday, Mar. 13, 2023. Kingstonist will provide further coverage on this matter as more information becomes available.

3 thoughts on “Indigenous community members voice concerns about upcoming Tourism Kingston event

  • It hurts to read this. It’s understandable why Indigenous people are upset. The incredulity Indigenous people must feel that yet again ….., incredulity and anger and huge disappointment! And not just Indigenous people. It’s disheartening to any thinking, feeling person who has any knowledge of Indigenous History. And how can we not know? The disrespect and disregard of Indigenous people has been in the news for years. This event in its planning, tone deaf, yes. Bitter, yes.

  • Ok! we have heard one approach and some comments on reconciliation as it relates to the local indigenist people. Now lets hear the approach from the local indigenist people on how they would tackled this/their issue(s)/concerns. Perhaps an ongoing open dialog, with an open/positive/respectful mind, within the Kingstonist community newspaper from both sides, as it pertains to current issues within the local community. Thinking small steps at a time. Perhaps reconciliation maybe the wrong word to use. One thing that come’s to my mind relating to this subject, is a healing between two worlds and how we go about it.

  • Reconciliation should not be used as a business event or tourism. It should come from the heart. Why did organizers not invite local Indigenous folx together, ask them what sort of food event might be respectful or possible for being cultures together? -JJerreat

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